An Inmate's Guide to Partying in Prison
Slimy pills? Rotten bread? Pickled shit? Pick your poison.
The party doesn’t end when the handcuffs go on. Your options of drinks or drugs will narrow in the joint, but if you don’t run into your dealer you’ll meet another one. Over the decade I served in New York State’s prisons, there wasn’t a day I didn’t see an inmate high or drunk. (Sometimes even in the mirror -- addiction isn’t cured by a conviction.)
Addiction to heroin took less than two years to move me from my desk at a publishing mill to the dark Downtown streets, where I pulled a string of robberies most notable for their incompetence and my contrition. Back in 2004 I was the "apologetic bandit" or “sorry robber” in the press, but it didn’t help in court. And after a short stay at Rikers Island, I was soon a “newjack” at a maximum-security prison.
Most of my fellow inmates (who considered my 10-year sentence short) were not the determined, clear-eyed outlaws of legend. The public enemies that society allegedly needed protection from were fun-loving criminals! Everyone in the yard wore sunglasses, but you had to take them off inside. Then your eyes told your story: dilated pupils were “pinned” by opiates; saucer-sized ones pointed to pharmaceutical highs or a blast of cocaine; bloodshot ones meant a blunt had been passed around. Later in the bid I could recognize the manic, unfocused gaze that warned of K2, or synthetic cannabis. And there was no mistaking the stench of hooch: rotten orange juice. After having the pleasure of getting drunk and puking up some jailhouse wine -- or worse, a hideous concoction known as “jenkem” -- you never forget it.
Some nights the prison yard looked like one big New Year’s Eve. But where was the bar? Where were the drugs? Everywhere, it turned out.
Intoxicant 1: Polish John’s miracle wine
Polish John wasn’t a bad guy -- he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Four times, in fact. When I met him, he was doing 20 years. A cherubic and likable serial burglar, John had a neighborhood politician’s talent for remembering names and cracking jokes. He could have been the guy in the bar who’s always there and never pays. Since he spent much of his life behind the wall, he instead schmoozed with both cops and convicts until everyone was taking care of him. He kept his huge belly full with boxes of pork chops that cops left for him in unlocked refrigerators. Back in the block, inmate chefs often made extra bowls “to take care of Johnnyboy.”
John was irresistible, and one day he let me in on the secret of his good humor: he was drunk, every day, year after year, on his own hooch. By then I knew how easy it was to make. Any sugary liquid can ferment if it’s warm; to speed things along, you can add yeast, available for $20 an ounce smuggled in. It devours glucose and excretes ethanol and carbon dioxide. Every brewer had a recipe. Grapefruit juice was popular, but cost $.48 a can in the commissary. Others favored a vile base of melted raspberry fruit pops -- you needed a thousand of them, but they were dessert on the state menu every Saturday. A heavily sugared ketchup concoction was considered the sophisticated “acquired” taste.
John, however, had a different culinary philosophy: “Nothing tastes better than free.” His yeast came from bread. Typically, using bread to make hooch leaves a slime nobody likes, so John found a type he could use the least of: a rough brown bread issued to diabetics on a low-glycemic diet. Two fistfuls of it was enough for 3gal of wine. He got his sugar from the mess hall. He snatched his coffee filters out of the cops’ machine, leaving them with pots of half-boiled grinds.
As for his juice: he got it from the Lord. Every Saturday a bottle of sweet kosher Concord grape juice was issued to the prison’s Jewish congregation. It was a substitute for the wine usually used to celebrate the Sabbath, but John, being a good Polish Catholic, took it upon himself to perform the miracle of turning it into wine. Nobody minded giving him the bottle to feed “Johnny’s sweet tooth.” The ones who knew what he really did with it got a pint of the finished product now and then, and everyone was happy.
John and I started out as drinking buddies; a Russian like me can hold his liquor as well as a Pole. He slipped me 16oz plastic bottles of jail wine for free while charging everyone else a pack of cigarettes for one. In time, John took me on as an apprentice of sorts. But to do so, he had to trust me with the heart of his operation: his secret compartment.
Hooch needs a warm place where it can ferment for two to three weeks in a sealed vessel. But the carbon dioxide this creates must be vented. God help you if it blows: the reek doesn’t just identify a cell as the crime scene, but also renders it uninhabitable. For John, the solution was a compartment, located in a corridor wall, once used for plumbing or electricity. It could be opened with a copper penny, which was another violation -- prisoners are forbidden to handle currency.
Taking advantage of his porter job, John would open the compartment only when everyone else was locked in. In that brief moment of privacy while he was supposedly mopping the hallway, John sampled and vented his brew. Not that his wine really needed venting: unlike other jailhouse bootleggers, who brewed using garbage bags, John used the sturdy bags our milk came in, supplied by Friends of John (a broad category) who worked in the mess hall. These were three-gallon plastic sacks with a length of tubing to thread through a milk dispenser. To ensure the milk bags didn’t blow up if their contents went sour, the tubes had pressure-sensitive valves designed to release excess gas or liquid. A fortunate coincidence, as they vented hooch too.
Polish John had lived by his system for years, making hooch, selling it to others, and setting enough aside to maintain his own high spirits. That is, anyway, before his life collapsed. One day, about a year after we met, I watched John get stopped on his way to the yard with a bag of 15 pint bottles of product that he planned to sell. I thought this would be it: all they had to do was open one for him to get a year in the box. But the cops merely told him he was a bitch for carrying all his friends’ drinks. Everyone laughed. The next weekend, however, his luck ran out. He was called down for a surprise urine test. When he came back I saw his face without a smile for the first time since I’d met him. He must have been supplementing his hooch at some point (traces of marijuana can last for 30 days in urine), and three days later he was in solitary. We heard they gave him six months instead of a year because they liked him. As his former assistant, I inherited John’s compartment, but I didn’t get the penny or the porter job. The batch John left in there must be the strongest jail wine in the world by now.
Interlude: Jenkem, very briefly
There is an alternative substance you can brew. Jenkem is an inhalant used in the poorest parts of Africa, and apparently in the prisons of New York State, as a free high. To make it takes guts -- literally. You just need a bottle to fill with piss and shit, time to let it ferment and methane gas to form, and the courage to inhale it. While I did watch a mentally ill man collect the raw materials for jenkem in a dormitory once, it was certainly not a common sight. Or smell, thankfully. Nevertheless, the NYSDOCCS rulebook explicitly forbids the storage of bodily fluids.
Intoxicant 2: Heroin
New York State is amazingly diverse, and so is its prison population, but one common factor in the convicts’ backgrounds is familiarity with the drug scene. Speaking roughly, half of New York’s hardcore drug addicts are on opiates and half are on cocaine. But while I saw coke only three times in 10 years of prison, every yard had heroin or its pharmaceutical equivalent for sale. Horse is boss, smack is king, and these days Suboxone (“Orange Tang”) is the cheaper substitute.
Smuggling accounts for the price of heroin almost completely. A $10 bag in New York has only a few cents’ worth of active ingredient, and synthetic copies like fentanyl cost a lot to develop in laboratories but then were basically free to crank out. No, it’s law enforcement that makes dope valuable enough to deal. The price of a bag rises five times once it’s brought upstate.
A typical smuggling set-up: Mule #1, who faces a year and a felony if caught and convicted of “promoting prison contraband,” is a woman hired to take the bus to the prison. There, she buys a sandwich for Mule #2, the prisoner she’s “visiting,” and passes over the 5g of heroin that she had concealed in her vagina. Mule #2 is paid to receive the visit and risk his own felony. He “boofs” the package, pushing the dope far enough up his ass so that squatting naked won’t reveal it. (Everyone has to do this after every visit; if they refuse, they won’t be allowed to see their families.)
If you are suspected of smuggling, prepare for the “dry room.” This is a cell with only a sealed toilet and a bare cot; three fecal samples will win your release. There is an officer watching constantly, ready to examine the turds with a popsicle stick, hoping you don’t shit when he’s taking a bite of his sandwich so that you have time to re-swallow any contraband that might have appeared. Only swallowing the drugs twice will save you from at least a year in the box and another felony for promoting prison contraband by renting out your ass. (It’s an acquired taste.)
The demand for dope is easy to understand: opiates create a cocoon of comfort, and numbness to pain and worry, that is a desirable condition to those in an environment designed to punish them with every detail. As my own tragedy was a spiral born from the drug, it was dreadful to see many prisoners trying heroin for the first time. The pushers lived up to every evil stereotype; too often their product was free for “virgins.”
It isn’t free for long. Inside, a street bag of heroin costs five times its standard price of $10. Even chopped into four “jailbags,” it’s beyond the reach of men making three bucks a week.
Intoxicant 3: Pills, etc.
Pills were sold in every prison yard I’ve been in. They’re cheap -- the amount of morphine you get for a pack of Newports is a much stronger opiate dose than 50 bucks of contraband heroin -- and almost always consistent, as long as you get the genuine thing. There are specialists in pill reshaping who do a brisk business thanks to their steady hands (which can, say, form one Motrin into two “OxyContin” with amazing skill), but also to the placebo effect. I knew a young kid who, desperate to feel something, took Wellbutrin, an antidepressant, with the total belief that he was nodding from morphine. Perhaps it worked for the kid because he paid for it.
Anyway, pills are cheap because they don’t have to be smuggled in. They’re already there. As much as prisons hate prescribing narcotic medications, they have to. There are ill and elderly inmates, some with cancer or other painful conditions -- and they can sue (or their next of kin can) if they don’t get their pills. In any case, I’ve seen morphine sulfate, OxyContin, and Vicodin prescribed. I’ve had a Percocet script. There are people on benzos. And one very ill cancer patient I knew received Marinol, the drug made of THC extracted from marijuana, by court order.
So if pills are cheap and reliable, why does anyone bother smuggling in heroin? Because there is a social cachet to buying overpriced drugs from gangster dealers, and there is a stigma attached to taking pills that were, until recently, in someone else’s mouth. The latter is seen as low and unmanly. Nevertheless, the desire for escape, at least for a few hours, trumps pride in most prisoners and turns the med line into a drug shop.
The prison administrators, naturally, see this as confirming every instinct they have to deny sick old murderers a painkiller. Thus, there are measures in place. You can’t just have a bottle of Percocet. Any pill with even the remotest chance of being abused is issued by a nurse from a window in the clinic. The nurses dole out the pills slowly and carefully, three times a day. It may take an hour to receive yours. After the nurse confirms your identity, she gives it to you, making you wash it down with water while a bored cop watches.
And yet the med window is a fountain of money. While the sick line up at the appointed time, so too do eager customers. Some buyers have “contracts” with sellers -- arrangements to buy a week’s or a month’s worth of someone else’s pills -- but most people shop “on the wood” at the med line, bringing a pack of cigarettes with them and trading on site. As they say, “Money on the wood makes the world go good!”
Interlude: The poppy-seed defense
The nurses release many pills slowly and carefully because a mix-up in medication could, among other things, provide a loophole for an inmate who fails his urine test: opiates can trigger dirty urines identical to those caused by heroin. Theoretically so can poppy seeds (you’d have to eat a pound, but still). For this reason, food packages are painstakingly examined, lest a single poppy seed get into the facility. Strudel is verboten. If you think this is frivolous, the security staff doesn’t: after two dirty-urine charges in a row were defeated by men who defended themselves with the same poppy bagel-chip bag as evidence, the facility I was in shut down and was searched until the offending bag was found and destroyed.
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.
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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.