As Prisons Shutter Classes and Mental Health Care, Drugs Fill the Gap

January 24, 2024

I first met David “Lucky” Kestner about 15 years ago, when we were both incarcerated at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Tennessee. He was a regular at church services, excelled at his job, and was an avid student in the various classes and workshops that Riverbend offered. When classes from nearby universities would come in for the day, he’d address the students with an eloquence and forthrightness that gave them a genuine insight into the realities of incarceration.

Riverbend at that time was a haven compared to other state-run and private facilities I’ve experienced in nearly 30 years of incarceration. The prison chaplain, who has since left, was an abolitionist who brought in hundreds of volunteers to help facilitate a robust catalog of academic and recreational programming. We had access to one-on-one mentoring and workshops on subjects like conflict resolution. We took Vanderbilt University classes with non-incarcerated students, and completed the same coursework that they did. 

For Lucky, now 46 and currently incarcerated with me at South Central Correctional Facility (SCCF), this programming was a lifeline. It taught him new skills and kept his mind off the reality of his situation. Unless something changes for him in court, Lucky will not be eligible for release until 2054.

“I don’t see myself being here until 2054—I’ll either be dead or released before then,” Lucky told Filter. “Talking about things that weren’t prison-related took me to another place. At least for a short time.”

The classes and workshops were gone; the level of daily violence was high.

One day, out of the blue, Lucky found himself on the transfer bus to a different facility—an experience all too familiar to many of us in the prison system. The prison he was sent to had a very different culture. The classes and workshops were gone; the level of daily violence was high.

“I immediately had to fight to keep my property, and for anything else that I needed,” he said. “It felt like all the years I had spent trying to better myself were wasted and just thrown away. The state just looked at me like a number.”

A few years later, Lucky’s mental health was showing the strain. At night his racing thoughts robbed him of sleep, and then during the day he was exhausted and withdrawn. Friends urged him to request an appointment with a mental health counselor; maybe some mood-stabilizing medication would help.

Lucky reported to his appointment, where the counselor asked him how he’d been feeling recently. After establishing that Lucky had no immediate plans of suicide, the counselor seemed to have all the information he needed.

“He told me that life is hard in prison, and [intrusive thoughts] were probably over a guilty conscience, and I should pray before I went to sleep,” Lucky recalled. “I thought, What the fuck?”

He never went back, and never sought mental health care again after that. But if the prison system wasn’t going to provide any support, that didn’t mean he couldn’t find it himself.

“I grab everything and anything that can bring me relief,” he said. “I wouldn’t dare deny a cancer patient morphine, so what’s the difference?”

“Like it or not, meth has kept me from killing myself many times.”

Drugs had been a part of Lucky’s life since eighth grade, when a friend’s father who sold marijuana and assorted pills offered him an opportunity to make some money. For a long time his relationship with drugs had been based on selling them, not using them. But with no other way to keep his mind occupied, he found that methamphetamine made life bearable.

“I’ve got this wheelbarrow load of time to do … Like it or not, meth has kept me from killing myself many times,” Lucky said. “That must sound strange to folks, but it has been the one thing that has not abandoned me.”

Meth and other state-banned drugs are often inaccurately described as being almost instantly addictive. But many people, including Lucky, use meth regularly without experiencing cravings, or going into withdrawal during the times they’re not using it. It’s simply a tool he uses to get him through hard times, to keep moving forward and not dwell on what he can’t change.

Prison sentences are getting longer, as prisons themselves are giving us fewer ways to pass the time. As the understaffing crisis drags on and prisons cut costs any way they can, workshops, religious services and outside volunteers have fallen away. Those days at Riverbend are but a fond memory.

“I would love to be in college classes and learning new things. But that’s not my reality right now,” Lucky said. “Prison administrators force you to play this sick, Hunger Games style of living, where you kill or be killed. They want you to fail. They set you up to fail. Surviving any way I can is me flipping them the bird and saying, Fuck you.”



Photograph via Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Tony Vick

Tony has served almost three decades of a life with parole sentence in Tennessee. Before prison he lived as a closeted gay man; his Southern Baptist parents and an older brother have since died. While incarcerated he has worked as a tutor, clerk and newspaper editor. He's also begun book clubs and writing workshops, and prisoner-led elder care programs. He writes about captivity in the hope of contributing to the prison reform movement.  

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