This Anti-Heroin Drug Is Now King of the Jailhouse Drug Trade

Heroin, once the top illicit drug in prison, has been replaced by the cheaper and easier to smuggle suboxone, which was meant to help opiate addicts.

In the decade that I spent in the prisons of New York state, you will be shocked to know that I saw a lot of drug use. Ten years ago heroin was king; its availability set the price of things as varied as pilfered chicken legs, blackmarket Newports and blowjobs. But other drugs were always available; the gangsters smoked blunts in the yard, the white guys were all on pills, and the Spanish took MDMA and massaged each other in the showers. But it was always heroin that ruled the market.

The same stuff that had cost me a decade. I was in prison for robbery; it took a year and nine months of heroin addiction to take me from my desk in the publishing world to pulling stick-ups with a pocketknife. I got caught on a fluke and hit hard by the judge. Sentenced to 12 years, I did my minimum of 10 and got out in February this year. Never even heard of Suboxone back then, although I now know that it was available.

And it’s everywhere. Because of a national change in drug policy that encourages moving addicts on the street from methadone to Suboxone, which comes in the form of orange pills or sublingual strips, the prison yards of America are now full of inmates high on the substance, and it’s all over the streets as well.

The FDA approved Suboxone in 2002 to treat opiate addiction. After several studies, the drug treatment community decided that because of the lower risk of abuse, Suboxone can be prescribed for home use, while methadone (which was invented by the Nazis when they could no longer get morphine because of the Red Army and chemically called Dolophine in honor of Hitler) must be administered on a daily basis in clinics. It took a few years to hit the streets, but now it’s even more available in prison yards.

What is Suboxone? One way of explaining it, according to the Physician’s Desk Reference, is that the chemical is a mixed agonist-antagonist opioid receptor modulator. Although it is also used to control pain, it was created as a way to manage opiate addiction. There are two major components. The first, buprenorphine, is the opioid, a synthetic analogue to morphine or codeine. The second is naloxone, the antagonist, meaning that it stops the action of other opiates, like heroin. Suboxone is meant to fill the opiate receptor in the brain, which the addict craves, with buprenorphine, and then add a cap of naloxone on top preventing further abuse and the possibility of getting high. With enough naloxone, a kilo of smack won’t have any effect on you. When used according to the formula, Suboxone works.

This system, had it only been more widely available when I was an addict from 2001 to 2003, would have saved me. Going to a methadone program to drink their Kool-Aid sends you to scummy neighborhoods to stand in line with the homeless. Those lines are also great places to score Xanax and crack, both drugs that are not affected by narcotic antagonists. Suboxone can be simply prescribed by a doctor in the office. An old friend and former junkie buddy is now attending law school in California; he’s been on Suboxone for six years. He’s probably the only student there who takes a pill every day to not become a junkie again, but you wouldn’t ever know. That’s the point.

Both the pills and the strips find their way into prison. The pills can be brought in by the guards, or smuggled through the visiting room, or even sent in by anyone who owns a canning machine and can print labels. You can get anything into prison with a canning machine and a labeler.

But the most common method is called “boofing,” That means someone (and it’s almost always a woman) fills a balloon up with drugs and passes it to a prisoner she is visiting. He then shoves it up his ass, which is usually pre-lubricated, since we were all strip-searched on the way out. Heroin used to come in the same way, either packed in bundles of wax baggies or as chunks resembling sticks of chalk. But no longer. Economically, there’s just no point in dealing heroin in jail anymore. After all, a dose of Suboxone that can be shared by eight convicts only costs five dollars on my corner in Brooklyn.

On the street, Suboxone is plentiful because it is prescribed, so junkies get their monthly allotment of several dozen doses, pay with a Medicaid card, and sell it off at five dollars a pill or strip to buy a real bag of dope. Seems to me like they are missing the point, but the addiction makes the decision for them.

However, just one of those pills or strips is way too much for a prisoner, whose system is relatively clean because although there are drugs inside, there just isn’t as much. So when the Suboxone reaches the joint, it is cut up into eight doses. Or 10 if the dealer is greedy. Each dose is enough to be high for a day. The price of the dose was two packs of Newports when I left prison in February, so a little over 10 bucks if the packs are bought in the yard on the blackmarket. For years, the urinalysis machines that the Department of Corrections uses tested for cocaine, THC and opiates. In 2012, they had to add a test for buprenorphine.

When I first witnessed the prison drug trade, back in 2004, it was established and organized. The dope was available in the yard every day. Assuming that your credit was good, you could take what you wanted and then had two weeks to pay. The little glassine bags that cost $10 in every project building in New York went for $50 inside, but most people bought “jail bags,” which were made of neatly folded magazine paper. One bag cost about 20 bucks, paid in cigarettes, and it contained about a third or a fourth of a street bag. This is enough if your system is clean. The larger transactions, say, for several street bags or an entire bundle of ten ($250) were paid for through Western Union. Somebody out in the world sends the money to someone else, and then the confirmation numbers are passed over the phone. The dealer calls himself to check the numbers, and the transaction is made. Intricate and difficult, but it worked for years.

The way dealers got caught, and they all eventually get caught, is when some user with dirty urine drops a dime, or if money from jailhouse accounts is sent to the same address over and over, or if the cops were on to the courier, usually a woman, and searched her on the way in. For this, the courier can expect one to three years of prison time for the felony of “promoting prison contraband.” How the dealers risked their wives and girlfriends for such a thing was beyond me.

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In any case, there was always dope, the price had been the same for years, and everyone knew that you do it on a Friday because it takes three days to leave the system and the cops only do urines on the weekend in extreme cases. For about half my sentence this system persisted. Backing it were the gangs, especially the Latin ones, and the wiseguys. In one prison there was an Asian cartel: Koreans and Chinese working together to get really pure stuff in, and half the place was addicted to their dope.

Suboxone now comes in little orange strips. As with the pills, it can be cut into eight doses, either used sublingually or mixed with water and snorted. But unlike a pill, a strip can be put under a stamp. In fact, three strips can be put under a big one. According to The New York Times, children’s drawings, with Suboxone used to color in the orange parts, have given the incarcerated father a lovely surprise. Several states have already learned to fear anything orange colored, even insisting on only white envelopes being used for mail so that concealed Suboxone strips can be seen with a light. Some states are now tearing postage off the mail; by federal mandate you cannot prevent a prisoner from receiving letters, but there is no guarantee of privacy.

It’s being called an epidemic, although in fact it’s really just a reaction to federal drug policy and the next step in jailhouse drug dealing. Drugs have been inside of prisons as long as there have been both drugs and prisons; Dostoyevsky was able to buy vodka in The House of the Dead.

I never tried it. It appeared when I was already halfway through my time and I was scared to death of getting caught and not being able to go home on time. For a first dirty urine, you get three months in solitary. The second is six, every one after that is a year. It’s a heavy penalty for getting high for a day. Perhaps too heavy in the grand scheme of things; you get about a year for stabbing someone too, so the conclusion can be drawn that the two violations are of equal danger. Nevertheless, it kept me straight. But a lot of my friends partook, some buying it, others waiting on letters from their girlfriends with a nice big stamp. It really doesn’t matter, because even with every stamp destroyed, as long as eight people can get high for five dollars, they will.