Intoxicant 3: Pills, cont'd
So who are the dealers? Unlike on the outside, where there is a dangerous network of international crime syndicates and local dealers, in jail most of the sellers are old and sick inmates desperate for a few dollars. As bad as it is for anyone to be broke in prison, where my hundred bucks a month put me in the top 1%, seniors without any outside support have it the hardest of anyone. They’re essentially barred from opportunities to make money at the jailhouse factories or through the many hustles that make prison the ultimate proof of humanity’s essentially capitalist nature. Those older than 60 are even aged out of the easy jobs it took them years to reach -- like John's porter gig -- and reduced to “idle pay,” which is 10 cents an hour, 30 hours a week. There’s no retirement fund, and those with an actual pension earned by a lifetime of work before incarceration see it turned over to the state to pay for their care.
Those on meds, however, have a fighting chance. Because the opiates have built up in their system over time, in theory they can skip a dose. “Cheeking” a pill worth $5 adds up, even if you’re doing it only once a day because you need the other two. And there is always a buyer.
What this looks like in reality is not as neat, however. I knew an older fellow named Steve who had it all, starting with hepatitis C. Steve was also in a wheelchair, HIV-positive, and dying of lung cancer. That meant a lot of medication. The problem was, Steve liked gambling much more than he liked not being in pain. As a result, he owed almost all of his pills, all of the time. He booked his medication a week ahead, and sometimes he promised one dose to two people. When judgment day came, he’d lie to his clients about being forced to swallow his pills. But then they started to make sure, and followed his wheels to the window. Steve had an entourage of young men bickering about who was getting what out of his meds. The cup of pills he received -- it looked like 40 at a time -- was more than anyone could cheek, so Steve trained himself to swallow his pills shallowly. He’d roll away from the window to meet his eager customers. They’d thrust a baseball cap in front of Steve and he would methodically regurgitate the pills into it, trying not to lose any. His clients would pick through the mess, trying, considerately, to leave Steve his HIV pills. It was like watching a mother bird feeding her hatchlings.
(Because of things like this, prisons instituted “crush orders” while I was there, to shut down the market in cheap highs that occasionally caused overdoses and spread disease. The pills were broken by a plastic gadget into a pile of shards -- but even that didn’t work. The men selling meds held the bits and powder on their tongues, wiped them off with a paper towel, and then sold the paper towel. Customers would argue without any repulsion about how much saliva they were getting.)
Steve lost too many pills paying for his bad luck at the poker table. He couldn’t bluff HIV; his T-cells folded. Once they fell low enough, he was hospitalized. A few weeks of care improved his health but left him owing more people than he could possibly pay. He signed into protective custody, where there is no yard, and died a year later without ever seeing the outdoors again.
But what can you say? The prison population ages, serving out their mandatory minimums, and new Steves emerge every day. The market endures. The price is right. It always will be.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Daniel Genis lives with his wife in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in The New York Daily News, Deadspin, Newsweek, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Vice. His memoir, The Last Beat, will be published by Penguin next year. Reach him via danielgenis.net. Follow him: @DanGenis.