The drug supply in our prison has a lot of variety. Tobacco; marijuana; a couple of different meth supplies, some better than others. Suboxone comes and goes, but fentanyl/heroin is so plentiful that it’s usually still around even when the compound is otherwise dry. So if you can pay for them, most days you have your pick of what drugs you can use. But the people you can use them with, those are more limited.
Humans being social creatures by nature, those who use drugs often want to use them together. Drug users both in and out of prison tend to separate along class lines, by drug of choice and by method of use, but in prison it’s much more pronounced. The result is that the larger drug-user community is fractured into smaller drug-user cliques.
The sheer number of these cliques means many people find one they can settle into, and once they do, their quality of life tends to improve. But then there are the people who don’t fit in anywhere.
The-All grew up as the youngest member of a family where everyone used some substance or other. He started drinking with his dad when he was 7 or 8, then a few years later was going to parties with older teens.
“I’m used to getting high with people, you know?” he told Filter. “If I can get high with some funny, down-to-earth people … that’s best.”
Meth users shunned him for years. No group would accept him, so he injected alone.
By the time The-All got locked up he’d become acquainted with a long list of different drugs, but his drug of choice is meth. Though there’s no shortage of meth-user cliques here, none would let him use with them. Most of the people who use meth snort it or eat it; a few smoke. The-All sometimes smokes, but he also injects.
Per the cultural norms of this facility, needles are for opioids. There’s a very specific stigma reserved for people who inject meth, because nine times out of 10 when someone bugs out and the whole pod gets punished, it’s a meth user who’d just shot up.
Meth users shunned The-All for years. No group would accept him, so he injected alone. It’s difficult to overstate how damaging this can be. Having other people to use with can bring a certain sense of safety, especially for opioid users who’d be much more vulnerable to overdose if they were alone. But just about everyone in prison needs some form of community to survive, and with so many drug-user cliques, the weight of all that rejection adds up.
The existence of any type of clique, especially in environments where most people are in one, confronts you with the same fundamental issue of whether you’re an “us” or a “them.” But this is magnified 10-fold in prison compared to how it felt on the outside. The-All was placed on suicide watch four separate times, and twice kept in “mental health seclusion.”
“I don’t mind using by myself. In fact, sometimes I just want to do [that] and relax. Meth is probably the worst for this though; the meth-user community is just so toxic,” he said. “When I’m coming down, it’s way too easy to get in my head. That’s where most of my scars came from; most of my times in the hole and on suicide.”
Finding the right group to use with can be enough keep someone off suicide watch.
“I’ve never really done drugs with people I didn’t feel comfortable with,” Sean, who uses meth and opioids, told Filter. “Like, I had to know them for a while. I’ve got several mental disorders, so I don’t do dope by myself or I start overthinking life …. But as long as I can get high with good people, life is easier.”
R. Lee, who uses meth, opioids, tobacco and marijuana, told Filter that in his five years of incarceration, he has been in several life-threatening situations—not from using the drugs, but from the special kind of misery that comes with using them in prison alone. Before he found a group where he fit in, he was in a freefall that cost him multiple prison jobs, a safer living environment and relationships with family members.
“Having people to get high with and keep me in check is pretty much the only thing keeping me alive,” he said.
Prisons are filled with people who often have nothing in common with one another, except for being in prison. Finding the right people to use with means finding people who intimately understand many of your experiences; people who get it. That alone can be enough keep someone off suicide watch in here.
A little over a year ago, The-All’s life started to stabilize. He found a user group where he finally fits in, and since then he’s held down a steady job and hasn’t self-harmed. He didn’t need to stop using drugs; he just needed to stop using them alone.
“People I smoke weed with are just chill,” he said. “That’s what keeps me off of suicide watch—having a healthy community.”
Image via Drug Enforcement Administration