Of the 13 years I’ve spent incarcerated, 2020 was the worst. It was the year I lost hope in the system, stopped trying to convince myself that the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) was just floundering but meant well. That the facilities were just old and ill-equipped; that real changes take time.
As a transgender woman sent into the men’s prison system, I’d had the small mercy of being placed in relatively safe dorms at relatively non-violent camps. In 2018 I disembarked, shackled, from the prison transfer bus, expecting to find myself at another medium-security facility like the last one. But I wasn’t.
Shocked, I recognized my new surroundings—a high-security, notoriously violent prison whose reputation preceded it. I had no idea why I was there. Guards, medical staff, other prisoners—everyone told me I was the first trans woman they’d ever seen in there. Many had never seen a trans person in real life at all.
For the next two years I kept my head down. I had a lover who abused me, but who didn’t permit anyone else to. Then he left. Three men beat and raped me in my cell.
I filed a PREA report, after which there was supposed to be an examination. But there wasn’t. The shift lieutenant accused me of lying and wasting her time. Old habits of self harm crept back up, preoccupations with suicide and castration. I wanted to die, and in a body that felt distinctly not male anymore. But I didn’t.
GDC emergency transferred me to one of the prisons that had a Crisis Stabilization Unit. I was told I’d receive mental health services, as procedure required. But I didn’t. After a 15-minute intake conducted by a bored, indolent counselor while I was locked inside a cage, I was taken to solitary confinement indefinitely.
I had no one to talk to and no one who seemed to care. I had no lighting, ventilation or running water for over 70 days. I was denied phone access for over 60 days. I spent the first 16 days in four inches of standing water, with feces smeared on the walls, door, window and vent, before I was finally given cleaning supplies. I lost nearly 30 pounds.
I sent Health Service Request forms and letters to the administration asking for medication for depression and anxiety. I asked the counselors who came to the door once or twice a week to sign my chart and leave without looking in. Sometimes they’d tell me they’d get back to me. But they didn’t. GDC hadn’t responded to Filter‘s request for comment at publication time.
I tried to get meds by filing grievances. At one point a deputy warden answered, to tell me I was only making things worse for myself.
But I wasn’t. I was making things better.
One or two lines, three to five strips, a few cigarettes—this became what I called my Therapy Pack.
Every morning when the orderlies hit the lockdown unit with the breakfast trays, I was up and ready. Breakfast was slop—literally wet bread and uncooked grits, though sometimes we got the knock-off “Frosted Flakes”—but none of us were waiting for the food.
All drug commerce in solitary goes through the orderlies. Whether you’re buying directly from them or from a playmaker who also happens to be hole, orderlies are gonna get their cut. They’d roll in the food transports, and my commissary goodies—toothpaste, deodorant, chips, soups, oatmeal pies, stamps—would be lined up for trade.
One or two lines, three to five strips, a few cigarettes—this became what I called my Therapy Pack. I bought whatever was available, whatever burned the time. Whatever got me out of my mind, and the confines of the hole. The strip highs only lasted 20 minutes or so, a sort of train effect to complement the ice and cigs. Could have been K2, but who knows. They were a little like weed at first; toward the end, they made me sleepy all the time. That was alright. Sleep is important, to pass the time.
I tied a sheet between my bunk and the latch on the locker box to make a hammock. One Ramen soup would buy a lit toilet paper wick, either from the orderlies or from one of the prisoners with broken light fixtures in their cell, which lasted all day.
Every day for two and a half months, I snorted ice and I worked through the trauma of being beat on, having my eyes blackened, my clothes torn from my body. Drugs froze the memories of foreign hands grabbing at me, allowing me to approach them slowly, on my own terms.
Drugs gave me the mental health first aid I never received from GDC.
One day, high out of my mind reciting the Athanasius I was memorizing for school, something inside me shifted. I went cold-turkey off the ice and strips. I can’t explain it, but in that moment I knew that I was done with them. I sat down on the floor and just cried, letting go of the pain of my assault and my rage at the system, and with them the urge to reach for drugs. Except cigarettes, which I was smoking as fast as I could buy.
Two weeks later—I’m not sure why—I was taken out of the hole and back to general population. The transition was cathartic and painful, like being reborn but being tested at the same time. For a while I didn’t want to be around anyone who still partied, out of fear that I would “relapse.” But eventually that fear receded, and I was able to let people be themselves without losing me.
More than 75,000 people in state and federal prisons are estimated to be in solitary right now; the total number across the United States, which includes people in jails, detention centers and other carceral facilities like psychiatric wards, is unknown.
I can’t imagine prison if they could force us be conscious the whole time. Sleep provides that escape for me now, but for a long time—through the worst times—I got there with drugs. Being high is how many of us make our sentences livable, and was certainly how I made solitary livable.
According to the state, I spent those three months under “mental health observation.” I received treatment. I was not sexually assaulted. My injuries were all from being physically assaulted, and from self-harm. In reality, drugs provided me with the mental health first aid that GDC never did. Drugs reminded me to survive.
Photograph via Nevada Department of Corrections