This update might be somewhat of a controversial one amongst the incarcerated population. So I’ll use broad strokes to paint this picture..

It’s no big secret that there are drugs in prisons. They are smuggled inside in dozens of ingenious ways and depending on how much or how little are available on the yard at a given time—and they dictate the driving force of the daily activity of 99% of the inmates on the yard, but it didn’t always use to be this way.

I hate to admit it but I’ve been in prison for a while now, enough to witness this unfortunate change. Back in 2012 when I first hit the yard, things were much different than they are today. 90% of the yard was sober. There was a rigid structure enforced by the convicts on the yard. Your weren’t considered a convict until you’d done at LEAST a “nickel”—5 straight years—behind the fence in a prison, not a camp or Class D jail, but in many cases a full “dime” was required to be considered a convict. “Inmates” were looked down on by convicts. Anyone who’s seen the Vin Diesel movie “Riddick” remembers the speech as he’s being glowered into the Maximum Security Prison Crematoria:  “Convicts live by a certain code, Inmates bring shame to the game”.  Being a convict was really just about respect.  Learning when to show and to demand respect.  And of course, learning how to do time.

The older convicts called the shots and there were only a few people who could get their hands on drugs. The only drugs on the yard were usually marijuana, some meth and some heroin.  These were sold in small quantities of $100 “knots”.  The buyer had about 10 days to get the money there and 95% of the time every one was good for their word.  Your word was EVERYTHING in prison back then. Needle use was rare.  People were even bright-eyed and healthy looking.  Boy, did that change…

Around 2015 a new drug started to find its way in.  It was smaller, more efficient and could be smuggled more easily. It’s called Suboxone and it’s actually used to wean people off heroin on the streets. It acts as an opioid blocker while giving the user some stimulant effects. Doctors call it a miracle drug.  It comes in the form of a strip and each strip resembles a Listerine breath strip, only slightly smaller. A very small amount of each strip produces the desired effect; it can be cut into 16 pieces and sold for as much as $100 a piece. 500 strips could be smuggled and get the entire yard high for 6 months compared to other previously smuggled substances that might only last a few days. So the old system crashed and burned.

This change happened really fast and it’s never really let up.  I don’t get high and I’d never been around hardcore addicts in active addiction so this was a hard learning curve for me for a few years.  Most of the people incarcerated in Kentucky are there for an addition-related crime. The introduction of Suboxone into the yard economy made it affordable to get high. Depending on competition, I’ve heard of prices being as high as $1000 a strip all the way down to $40.  I’ve seen someone pay $200 for 1/32nd and I’ve seen people get 1/16th for a $3 bag of coffee. My point being the drugs are now available to everyone and you don’t have to send street money. Inmates can buy them with canteen from the commissary or whatever other currency they can scrounge up. This had caused the vast majority to the inmate population to become active addicts. First they’ll sell everything that their families have bought for them, and then they’ll start robbing and stealing to get the money. They’ll play every card, burn every bridge with every family member.  I’ve seen guys fashion needles for shooting up out of ballpoint pens, out of basketball needles (can you imagine?!), out of watch pins, out of anything they can get their hands on. (I can think of 10 guys off the top of my head in their 20s who have had open heart surgery because of endocarditis)

Convicts have more or less ceased to exist; at the very least they are a dying breed.  Guys like me are an absolute outlier.  I don’t get high so I have literally nothing in common with almost everyone here since that is what their entire lives revolve around.   I have simply sat back as a sober social observer while avoiding the occasional old acquaintance with a sob story about needing to borrow money for their dying niece or whatever such nonsense.

The prison’s only response has been to clamp tighter and tighter on security which is ineffective and purely penal. Even the last 2 years without “in person” visitation hasn’t seemed the flow of Suboxone into prisons. The addict would sell his firstborn child for some dope, they always find a way.

I’m a Colorado kid, so I wouldn’t mind a little smoke and bourbon, but honestly I could take it or leave it and it definitely doesn’t run my life. I can’t even remember the last time I had any kind of buzz or even relaxed. I wish I didn’t know about any of this stuff, but while I’m trapped here in this hell its one of the darker parts of my reality.

Ranger Buckley, from the frontlines—Out!