Like a black hole at the center of all the dark realities that generate crime, our epidemic of opioid addiction devours life and hope in one New Hampshire prison.
This is one of those rare posts – the ones I try to avoid writing – about the darker peripheries of prison life. I am late getting to it, and now have to struggle to get it out of my typewriter to have it in the mail by a deadline. One of my recent posts took a full month to get through the mail from Concord, New Hampshire to Andrews, North Carolina, where these posts are scanned.
I ended up having to dictate that article word for word, sentence by sentence, over the telephone to a friend who volunteered for the tedious job of retyping it. This was frustrating, but I think most readers know of the obstacles that must be overcome for These Stone Walls to be published each week.
Among my obstacles, believe it or not, is time. You might think that a prisoner would have nothing but time on his hands; however, that is not the case. Seven years ago, I was drafted into the service of what has turned out to be a black hole consuming my spare time insatiably. I serve on a board of ten prisoners for a project that is most unusual in an American prison.
The board is called the Resident Communications Committee (RCC), a group of ten prisoners from diverse backgrounds with exemplary records who meet with the prison administration to present issues affecting the 1,300 other prisoners here. I am late getting to this post this week because I and the other nine members of the RCC spent the better part of two days meeting with representatives from the New Hampshire State Legislature.
One of my favorite war movies is the 1953 World War II film, Stalag 17 starring William Holden. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor portraying an American prisoner of war who negotiates with the camp commanders over conditions. Our committee is somewhat like that, but the current war we are fighting is not Nazi captors. It is something worse. It is opiate addiction.
In my recent popular post, “Poetic Justice: Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth,” I wrote that I also work as a law clerk for six hours per day at the New Hampshire State Prison Law Library. For the lucrative rate of about thirty cents per hour, I interface with most of this imprisoned population of 1,300 during some of the worst days of their lives.
As the lives they once knew continue their disintegration, I provide legal forms and help completing them for court motions and petitions, divorce petitions, the preservation of parental rights, and, a relatively new legal document, applications for drug court.
Some New Hampshire jurisdictions are beginning to treat drug-related offenses differently from other crimes. So while writing this, I asked a Law Library prisoner-patron who has been through it to describe drug court. Here is his response:
- “In some ways, it’s worse than prison. When I committed my crime [forgery of checks] the criminal court allowed me to petition for Drug Court after an assessment diagnosed opiate addiction. Once they knew that my crime was related to the addiction, they put me into drug court I was sentenced to daily accountability. That means that to stay in the community, and keep my family, my home and my job, I had to agree to strict monitoring. I had to agree to a daily curfew, weekly assessments with a LADAC [Licensed Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor], daily meetings with AA or NA [Narcotics Anonymous], drug testing several times a week by providing urine samples in the presence of a court officer, and weekly restitution payments.”
LIVE FREE OR DIE HIGH
Drug court is a growing concept in New Hampshire, usually imposed after serving a prison sentence. The person described above is in prison serving his original sentence because he failed to meet all the conditions of drug court. For younger defendants with homes and family ties already disintegrating, the failure rate is high.
During our meetings with legislators this week, I presented that two months ago a young man came into the Law Library to tell me that he had been paroled and was going home. He shook my hand and thanked me for whatever help he had been given here. It was a Friday morning and he said he was leaving that afternoon. There were smiles on the legislators’ faces as I conveyed this story, but they quickly disappeared when I told them that this young man who was released on a Friday was dead by the following Monday.
I live in a prison unit of 288 men. It is one of three Medium Security General Population units in this prison. One of the others holds another 288, and the third – the more confining one and the one I spent 23 years in before moving – holds 504 men living eight to a cell. The place in which I live now is, by comparison, humorously referred to as “the suburbs” by other prisoners. Its population tends to be better behaved, less problematic, and more easily managed than those in the 504-man building in which I had been living.
But even here in “the suburbs,” America’s opiate addiction has had a devastating effect. On the surface, this is a very livable place as far as prisons go. But if a visitor ventures down to the ground floor office, there is found there a wall of death. Along one wall are the photos of 36 young men who had lived in just this one unit of 288 but now live no more. Each of the 36 left prison just to die of an accidental fentanyl or heroin overdose. [[Editor’s note: the numbers were 33 at the time of writing. During editing the total went up to 36. By the time of publication it was said that the numbers might be up to 38…]]
On August 22, 2017, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Editorial Features Editor Matthew Hennessey entitled, “Live Free or High in the Granite State.” In January, 2017, newly elected President Donald Trump – who lost blue-state New Hampshire to Hilary Clinton by a margin of just 3,000 votes – set off a local frenzy of denials when he referred to New Hampshire as “a drug-infested den.” Not a good look for the “Live Free or Die” State.
Jack Riley, Deputy Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, echoed President Trump’s assessment of the opiate epidemic: “It’s in every corner of the country, but I have to tell you, I think the Northeast, in particular New Hampshire, is ground zero.” In the WSJ Matthew Hennessey cited some sobering facts:
- In a state of 1.3 million people, 500 died in 2016 due to overdoses – nearly three times as many as in 2012.
- Emergency rooms are packed with overdosing addicts and first responders are increasingly expected to bring people back from the brink of death.
- During five-weeks in the summer of 2017, firefighters in the city of Laconia [population: 16,000] administered over nine times as many doses of the opioid overdose rescue drug, Narcan, as they did the previous summer.
- The New Hampshire Attorney General filed a lawsuit in 2017 against Purdue Pharma, a Connecticut company manufacturing the opiate-based prescription pain drug, OxyContin. The NHAG cited a Center for Disease Control statistic: “Four out of five heroin users started with prescription opioids. To defeat the epidemic, we must stop creating new users.”
- It is fentanyl – a synthetic painkiller that is fifty times as potent as heroin – that really drives the opioid fatalities in New Hampshire.
- New Hampshire ranks first in the nation in per-capita deaths due to fentanyl overdoses. According to the National Drug Early Warning System, deaths related to fentanyl use increased 1,629 percent between 2010 and 2015 in New Hampshire.
ADDICTION’S WRECKAGE IN PRISON
When addicts come to prison without treatment, their addiction comes with them. Addiction creates a black market within prison for the sale of illicit drugs. Some people erroneously think that “black market” is a racist term with origins in the slave trade, the black-eye of early America. There is no connection.
“Black market” has its origin in World War I Europe. When commodities became scarce and rationing became necessary, hoarding took place. Those who hoarded goods then made enormous profit selling, at grossly inflated prices, goods that the government was trying to regulate for fair and even distribution. There is a black market in prison for Street drugs, and the price is vastly greater than what would be paid on the Street. When prison is combined with addiction, black marketers have a captive audience.
There is a synthetic opioid drug called “Suboxone” that is prescribed in your world for treatment of addictions. It is used to gradually wean an addict from other opiate drugs. Suboxone comes in a thin strip of film. As such, it is easily disguised and thus easily smuggled A week’s supply of prescribed Suboxone strips “out there” might cost about $30.00.
In the prison world, however, it sells for $400.00 to $600.00 or more. The shortage of “product” and the risks of smuggling are factored into the price. This creates enormous problems in prison. It maintains addiction and keeps the prisoner-user coming back for more. Prisoners addicted to opiates are the most captive audience.
Addiction creates debts among prisoner-users and it subjects them to violence when those debts remain unpaid. It causes users to do drastic things to pay their debts such as convincing family and friends to help them smuggle drugs to keep them safe.
Much of what happens in prison was an eye-opener for the six State legislators who came to meet with us. When I told them that the opioid epidemic was like an invading force in this prison, they asked for examples, and got them. One of their primary concerns – and we were glad to hear it – was the necessity of maintaining family ties for men and women in prison. Positive family ties are the single most important predictor in reducing recidivism and allowing former prisoners to remain out of prison.
In recent years, having to fight the drug invasion in prison has had a detrimental effect on most of the tools for maintaining family ties. Visiting periods that were once three hours each have been reduced to ninety minutes due to staff shortages and the more extensive screening needed to process visitors. Mail to and from prison has had the most serious erosion. Strips of Suboxone have been smuggled into prison for sale by hiding it in mail and masking it with highlighters, crayons, or marking pens.
This is why mail is now allowed only on plain stationery with black or blue ball point pen. The adhesive on envelopes has also been used to mask Suboxone, so now prisoners here receive only the contents of mail and not the envelopes. Many readers have voiced their dismay that this prison no longer allows cards of any kind, including Christmas cards.
It has nothing to do with Christmas. Those using the mail to smuggle drugs have painstakingly separated layered stationery, including and especially Christmas and birthday cards, to insert strips of Suboxone rendering it virtually undetectable. Addicted young prisoners desperate for relief, or those who built up drug debts they cannot pay, are sometimes coerced into taking such risks, and they in turn convince others.
TREATMENT V. PUNISHMENT
There have been instances of mothers or grandmothers arrested for attempting to introduce Suboxone into the visiting area. Wives and girlfriends have been caught smuggling drugs in their infant’s clothing. Their loved ones in prison put them into the position of facing a felony charge to feed their addiction or get them out of a drug debt. Many other long term prisoners avoid having visits because every prisoner who walks into the Visiting Area is now a suspect. At the end of every visit, prisoners must submit to invasive and humiliating strip searches and body cavity searches.
Former New Hampshire Governor, now U.S. Senator, Maggie Hassan told the news media that the state “cannot arrest its way out of this drug crisis.” Those who are exploiting the addicted must be held accountable, but the addicted users have but two choices: get help or keep using and end up on the wall.
The New Hampshire prison here in Concord has now launched a serious treatment program called Focus under the direction of a small team of licensed professionals. The Focus program is now housed in a segregated unit of eighty prisoner – clients focused on their recovery – as individuals and as a group – for six months or longer depending on need. A medical protocol has been added to the program to prescribe Suboxone as a treatment tool administered under strict supervision.
At the meeting with legislators, I commended the Department of Corrections for requiring this program, and for holding the prisoners who need it accountable. Many feel so buried under the wreckage of addiction that they cannot see their way clear of it. It has robbed them of all hope, and they are no longer the best judges of what is best for them.
It is cheap and easy to see these young men as criminals who have brought this upon themselves, but that is not always the case. You have met some of these men. Posted below are some of the profiles I have written of them. Some of us doing the right things here have been able to help some of them climb out from under addiction without treatment, but that is an extreme rarity.
In a post about prison food, linked at the end of this one, I wrote of another friend, Joseph who included an “in house” recipe that readers found hilarious. Joseph came into this prison at age 17 He struggled every day with his addiction, but left prison five years later at age 23. Now he is on the wall.
A few others have been more fortunate. Jeffrey, a friend featured in a post linked below, is now in the Focus program undergoing treatment. Readers are familiar with my friend, Skooter, who was pulled out of the gang culture and pointed in other directions. And you have met Ralph who came into this prison in active withdrawal from a heroin addiction. With the right help from peers here, he too was pulled from the predators trying to profit from his disease. Some of their stories are told below.
Both Skooter and Ralph left prison free of the inner prisons that held them bound. I am so proud that they remain free today. They have never come back. Ralph mailed a letter to the readers of These Stone Walls on his way out the prison doors, and Skooter posted one recently on his FaceBook page that was copied and sent to me.
Ralph and Skooter commend me too much in their letters. They did the hard and grueling work of trusting us, restoring hope, and confronting their addictions. They have struggled in freedom and their recovery, but they have never come back. I am giving them the last word, not to pat my back but to pat theirs.
- “It has been seven years since I’ve left prison. And over those seven years, it has been nothing but a struggle. And through those struggles I have lost a lot. Things I’ve had to leave behind, things I’ve had to sell to survive, things I’ve had to lose attachment to and throw away. Over these last seven years, of being out of prison, one would think his possessions would be greater than a few trash bags. 7 years later my possessions can still fit in couple trash bags. I’d have to say my time spent in prison has left a certain value on me. And that is how I view myself worth. Most people who experience prison has no self-worth. For prison is the darkest of holes a hole that will make you feel that you are unloved and not care for making yourself worth worthless. But some are lucky enough to meet somebody in the shadows of this hole of Darkness to bring light to one another. I was one of those people who were lucky enough to meet my friend Gordon. I love you G. You brought light to my darkness and I am grateful for that and because of that you will always have my loyalty in my love. One of my greatest saying. One’s possessions should not give one self worth. For it is not the things that we possess that make us rich. It is the richness of love that should influence one’s self worse. Let your possessions be reminders of love. God’s love, family’s love, friends love, for it is love that makes you rich. And one of my greatest possessions and the reason that I had written this in the first place is a rosary that you had bought me.” – Skooter
- “My name is Ralph Carey. You might remember me from a few of Father G’s articles Today I am getting out of prison and going to a rehab center to help me stay on the right path. I just want to let you know what a big impact Father G has had on my life. When I first got to prison I was all messed up and coming off drugs and my withdrawal was real bad. There were a few predators that tried to get to me, one of them with violence and Gordon step in and got me away from them and he made some enemies and he don’t care. Him and Pornchai made them leave me alone. But Gordon didn’t stop there. He helped me to get clean and stay clean for the first time I can remember. He believed in me even when I didnt. He got me to school and Pornchai help me be responsble. Gordon is the first true friend I ever had. I never thought one man could change my life so much. And now in about an hour I will be free thanks to him while he stays in prison. That is so wrong.” – Ralph
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Editor’s Note: Please share this important post and please Subscribe to These Stone Walls and Follow us on Facebook. Some of the stories written in this post are featured in more detail in these related posts: