Harm Reduction for the Syringes We Make in Prison

    Harm reduction supplies are hard to come by in prison. In some facilities, people who inject drugs might use needles salvaged from biohazard bins or bought from corrections officers at a markup. In Washington Corrections Center, needles themselves are relatively accessible—but syringes are not. In their place, we have binkies.

    Needles are much easier to smuggle in or steal when they’re not attached to anything, but a needle on its own isn’t viable for drug use (tattoo needles are a separate matter.) A binky, therefore, is a needle that’s been grafted onto whatever adds up to a delivery system. Eyedroppers are a common source of materials, and are also where the nickname comes from—”binky” as in a baby’s pacifier. Not meant in a derogatory way; the rubber squeezer is the same shape as a pacifier and drugs are soothing, that’s all.

    Most binkies are squeeze-action devices, sort of like the syrettes used to administer intramuscular morphine during World War II. And binkies do work decently for intramuscular injection, but in the 28 years I’ve been incarcerated I’ve only known a few people who use them that way. Intramuscular use—AKA muscle popping—has a slow onset, and it also isn’t suitable for stimulants like methamphetamine, which comprises much of our prison drug supply. But using a binky intravenously is difficult and dangerous, especially with makeshift components.

    The needle isn’t always secured in position, and the overall device is prone to falling apart.

    Binky needles can be held in place by pushing them through a piece of rubber wedged into the barrel. This might come from eyedroppers, the ties from laundry bags or the soles from some of the better state-issued shower sandals. But if the rubber isn’t thick enough—at least a quarter-inch—it won’t anchor the needle well enough to use safely.

    To preserve a needle’s sharpness for when it pierces your skin, you need to first pierce the rubber with something else like a pin. But it’s difficult to find one that’s the exact same size—too small, and you’ll bend the needle trying to force it through; too big, and the needle won’t sit snugly.

    Melting an eyedropper tip around the needle might keep a binky together—or it might make for a needle that unseats mid-injection. Superglue is a bit better at holding the needle in place, but it also tends to cause clogs, and you only get one chance to do it right; if the glue gets in the needle, that needle is ruined. (Plus, superglue was removed from commissary years ago; people had been finding many creative uses for it.)

    This is the fundamental issue with binkies: The needle isn’t always secured in position, and the overall device is prone to falling apart.

    A needle that unseats from its binky mid-injection can do a lot of damage.

    The most stable barrels are made from Visine bottles, but the most common barrels are made from pens. Flex pens—the Department of Corrections-issued security pen, so chosen because they’re not rigid like standard pens and don’t lend themselves to being weaponized—are already a suitable size and shape. With a Visine binky you’re making a permanent fixture; with the pen binkies everything can still come apart. Though the latter is a drawback if it happens during use, it’s a benefit if the binky needs to be quickly disassembled. The individual components look pretty innocuous, like bits of trash rather than contraband.

    It is possible to make a binky with an actual plunger, modeled after a standard medical syringe. But approximating this design means cutting a separate piece of rubber perfectly to size—the diameter of the barrel—so it sits snugly but still allows you to push the needle forward and draw it back. It’s very difficult to do, and few people try.

    A needle that unseats from its binky mid-use can do a lot of damage to a vein. And yet, you rarely see long-time binky users with abscesses or injection infections. I think it’s fair to say an expertly constructed binky that you keep to yourself is safer than a smoking apparatus that gets passed around.

    Since the onset of the pandemic, binkies have been slowly making a comeback.

    For whatever reason, binkies starting fading in popularity about a decade ago. Older prisoners still used them, but newcomers would end up smoking or snorting (sometimes a reduction in risk; sometimes not) because even though almost everyone would rather be injecting, not everyone knows how anymore.

    A well-made binky represents years—decades—of lived experience. Though I don’t use drugs anymore, I still carry the knowledge from all the years that I did. Since the onset of the COVID pandemic, binkies have been slowly making a comeback—but without the harm reduction knowledge of how to make them as stable as possible. Binkies thrown together without this knowledge are the highest-risk way drugs are used here.

    People are usually receptive to concepts like safer sniffing via separate straws. But the most logical injection alternative in these situations is booty bumping—after all, you’ve already got an eyedropper—which some people do but no one wants to talk about, at least not publicly. In prison, the only “acceptable” thing to put up your butt is something you’re hiding. Even for openly gay prisoners, if you booty bump it’s safer not to tell anyone.

    Though in recent years the population has become slightly more tolerant of queer and trans prisoners compared to when I was first incarcerated in the early ’90s, toxic masculinity is still deeply engrained in culture here. The fear of being associated with homosexuality is so powerful that even the suggestion of booty-bumping can start a fight. I see booty bumping as the number-one option poised to reduce a wide variety of harms, but it can also introduce new ones by making someone a target for violence. I broach the subject cautiously and privately. 

    Prisoner access to sterile injection supplies has gotten some (very) limited traction outside the United States. But in here any education around prison harm reduction—like how to clean equipment and why it reduces hepatitis C and HIV transmission—comes from the lifers and long-timers. The same people who hold the knowledge of how to make a sturdy binky, and what the options are if you can’t.



    Photograph of morphine syrette via United States Drug Enforcement Administration

    • Jonathan covers harm reduction and re-entry. He’s incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center, where he’s a Teacher’s Assistant for re-entry workshops and trains peer educators in HIV and hepatitis C harm reduction. His Washington State Department of Corrections job is crafting quilts out of recycled materials to donate to nonprofits for fundraising. His writing has been published by the Appeal, Truthout, Jewish Currents and the Seattle Journal for Social Justice. His ID number in WDOC is #716850, and until WDOC corrects a 28-year-old paperwork error his name in Securus is “Jonathon.”

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