From the Archives: Grass in the Joint (1981)
Written by on January 9, 2023
By Evan Dawes
I hadn’t seen David since I got sent down. He was waiting in the visitor’s room, looking like he was afraid he’d catch bad luck. We went through the preliminary how-you-beens, then I asked him if he’d brought me anything to smoke. He started. He reminded me of the many signs he’d driven by after passing the prison entrance that declared it a felony to bring alcohol, firearms or drugs onto the reservation. “And besides,” he said, “this is a prison. I mean, after all… uh, drugs? In the joint?”
I figured I’d have to show him how it was done. I indicated another prisoner a dozen yards away busily chatting with a pretty young woman. “Keep your eye on him,” I told him. “He’s about to go with something.” And sure enough, not ten minutes later, we watched him shove his arm down the back of his pants and rummage around. The second time this happened Dave asked me what was going on.
“See, he palms the balloons out of his ol’ lady’s bra, picks his shot when The Man isn’t lookin’, and keesters ’em, one at a time.”
Balloons? Keesters? “Yup” I grinned. “Up the ol’ rooty-poop chute, quick as a wink. No muss, no fuss, Burma Shave.”
Still tentative, Dave asked what the guy’s chances were. Did this happen often, or was it a one-shot deal?
“Just business as usual,” I assured him. “It’s probably weed, ‘cuz that’s the biggest seller. But that guy—I nodded at another inmate a bare ten feet away—he’ll be bringin’ in smack. Rougher crowd, y’know.”
Almost any high you can buy on the street is for sale in the yard too: pot and hash and ludes and smack and booze and glue and speed. Sometimes even a bit o’ the blow. LSD, too, if you’re of a mind. What’s more, The Man knows it. I was initially leery of writing about prison traffic, fearful I would be treated as an informer—by both inmates and authorities. And this article is definitely not intended to teach prison officials how to more effectively impede the flow of drugs into their institutions. But very few schemes escape the notice of prison officials for very long anyway usually due to the widespread use of informants. What is so heartening to the schemers, and frustrating to the officials, is that, short of a complete overhaul of the security systems in most prisons, there is little or nothing that can be done to stop this.
Most prisons in the United States follow a basic order of priorities: House the offender securely (which is to say “lock his ass up tight so society can sleep at night”); offer training for the offender so that he can return to society as a “productive member,” though oftentimes training programs are merely a guise to secure ever-larger budgets; and—more important to the prison officials than anything else—never ever allow the offender to use drugs to escape the tedium and monotony of his imprisonment.
About half of the drugs that enter most prisons come in through the visiting room. It should logically follow, therefore, that where there is no physical contact between the prisoner and his visitor, the likelihood of drugs being introduced into that prison is severely reduced.
The procedure at the Texas Department of Corrections, for example, prevents physical contact—but not smuggling. There inmates sit on one side of a room-length table and their visitors sit on the other. Guards sit on elevated platforms at each end of this table. Partitions above and below the table ensure that nothing is surreptitiously passed from visitor to con. The only time this restriction may be breeched is when the visitor buys a soft drink or some fruit juice for the prisoner. The visitor who is sharp eyed and nimble fingered may be able to slip something into the opened can without being seen before handing it to the guard to pass to the prisoner. If so, the “lucky” convict in Texas may go back to his cell having drunk a couple of ‘ludes or maybe some acid. Plainly though, the circumstances hardly conduce to a good high.
Thankfully most prisons are not afflicted with so great a degree of paranoia as the TDC. In New Hampshire, for instance, the visiting policy permits “limited contact”: Inmates and their visitors are separated by an ordinary table, fingertips touching; an embrace is allowed at the beginning and at the end of the visiting period. At the end of the visit the prisoner is not skin-searched—but merely frisked—and his shoes are inspected. Prisons in Washington State conduct visiting in much the same manner, except there is no separation by a table; the prisoner and visitor sit facing each other, holding hands if desired. Again, only a pat-search at the end of the visit.
All California prisons have contact visiting. The word contact is here given a very wide latitude. As one prisoner at the California Men’s Colony near San Luis Obispo (site of Timothy Leary‘s Weathermen-abetted escape) tells me: “Hell, man, babies have been conceived in the visiting room here.” That’s close contact.
Clearly the opportunities to smuggle drugs in situations such as these are almost infinite.
You cannot simply arrive at a prison with a baggie full of marijuana and hope that your convict friend will be able to take it from there. Recently I spoke with a man who had just been released from [name of institution deleted to prevent any harassment of the men there upon disclosure of this information]. His wife packaged pot for him to smuggle back into prison after she visited each week. First, she cleaned all the seeds and stems out of the grass. Then she stuffed an ordinary balloon with cleaned weed until it was about an inch in diameter, making sure to pack it tightly. After tying the balloon closed, she wrapped it in still another balloon and sealed that one, too. He explained that stomach acid is sometimes strong enough to eat through one or even two layers of balloon, so whenever she brought him any substances other than pot, she always gave it at least three wraps. (His caution is understandable. Careless packaging has been responsible for the death of many cocaine and heroin smugglers outside, and the same danger lies for the unsuspecting convict who swallows or keesters a poorly wrapped balloon from an otherwise well meaning friend.) He told me of one prisoner who OD’d right in the visiting room: “Man, he just nodded out and never came back! That’s why I always emphasized to the ol’ lady how important it was to be careful. She always did good, though, God love her. She knew those little balls of pleasure would keep the frown off my face—and they did!”
Adding to the supply feeding high-hungry cons are guards who pack—though it should be stressed here that probably less than 25 percent of the drug traffic in any given prison originates thusly. The reasons a guard would hazard his livelihood, and possible prosecution if discovered, in order to introduce drugs into the place where he works are many: the need for supplementary income, the excitement of risk, and sometimes just plain friendship or compassion. Relates a former California convict: “In ’71 I was at Soledad. Yeah, George Jackson, the Soledad Brothers, the whole thing was happenin’ then. Me, I was just lookin’ to get high. About this time I got in real good with this Chicano guard. After a few weeks o’ listenin’ to him talk about all the dope he was smokin’, I hit on him to bring me somethin’ to smoke, too. At first he was hesitant, but I kept drivin’ on him till he broke down and brought me some grass. What he’d been smokin’ was shit Mexican—he only paid fifteen dollars a bag for it—so after a couple o’ weeks I offered to have my brother send him a quarter-pound of some real kickass; he’d keep an ounce and bring me the other three. Once it arrived and he got a taste of that good, rich Colombo, it was all gravy after that. Until I left the ‘Dad in ’75, ol’ Paco kept me fat. What he didn’t know was that I was selling some o’ them ounces for tall bucks. A forty-dollar bag from my brother brought almost two hundred on the yard. Hell, a balloon the size of an English pea went for five dollars; figure it out for yourself.”
Prisoners who have no family or friends depend on what they can buy or trade for inside the prison. In some institutions the medium of exchange is cigarettes or coffee. Some inmates trade hobbycraft items, such as leatherwork, or paintings. Some men receive visits only from their parents and can get only money from them. As easily as drugs can be smuggled in, green can be smuggled in also. Green will usually net you a larger amount of drugs than an equal value in cigarettes or oil paintings.
Convicts often find the U.S. Postal Service to be the most reliable courier. Most people know that postage stamps are good for more than ensuring that a letter is mailed. Similarly LSD (and in some cases, heroin) can be dissolved and stationery soaked in it prior to mailing. Green can be stashed in greeting cards. The inventiveness of the correspondent is the only limitation.
Many maximum and medium-security prisons have camps nearby for men who are approaching release. These camps seldom have fences and the men there are, in many instances, free and unsupervised. At the federal prison near Lompoc, California, the laundry for camp inmates at one time was done inside the maximum facility. Since the drug situation at the camp has always been very relaxed, the men there had ample opportunity (until the scheme was discovered) to secrete drugs for those inside in their cleaned clothing.
In every institution there are men who receive what is termed “controlled” medication, usually various forms of downers: Thorazine, Dilantin, Mellaril, Prolixin and phenobarbitol. It takes very little practice to learn to palm these pills, which can then be saved up for a real bang or sold.
However, the most ingenious system for copping inside that I’ve ever heard is used by my friend Nick, who is a prisoner in one of the larger prison systems on the East Coast. A few months ago he called me in California and asked—in an informal code we use—if I could send $50 to an address he gave me. I agreed, and as the conversation unfolded, I learned that the money would be going to the family of another convict who received regular visits. As soon as the money arrived, this man would give Nick a prearranged quantity of pot. I put the money in the mail the next day and my friend was smoking later that week. I’ve since done this three or four times for him. What did Nick get for the $50? About a quarter ounce of marijuana. Not much, to be sure, but it is, after all, a prison. And from what he told me, this is about the going rate there.
Far and away the drug of preference in the yard is pot or hash, followed next by downers, then speed, then heroin. Cocaine is almost last, not for lack of desire, but because of the corresponding problems of price and availability. Coke simply is not worth the extravagant cost to most convicts, when the same amount of goods or green will net you a much larger amount of marijuana or hash. (One of those times I mailed money for Nick, he received three grams of hash for $50. And that was a bargain! Usually hash goes for $25 to $30 a gram, he told me.) LSD is also a low-preference drug. While a bit o’ the blow heightens the senses and makes enjoyable an otherwise apathetic day, acid often sharpens the perception of being imprisoned, mutating routine mediocrity into apprehension and paranoia.
Even booze and glue, the bastard children of the drug subset, find a market inside. At any time, in most prisons, someone will have a batch of homebrew going. It’s never very strong, packing about the same alcoholic punch as wine—but in sufficient quantity even prison vintage produces one hell of a buzz. To concoct alcohol, very little is needed that cannot be obtained through regular channels inside a prison. Except yeast. Because of its scarcity many convict brewers make a starting mixture of raw-fruit and raw-vegetable pulp, which is mixed and allowed to ferment for two to three days. This kicker is then added to a premixed base of fruit pulp or juice, sugar and water. The base determines how the end product will taste; however, the choice of fruit is more often the result of availability than desire, since most batches of ”pruno” or ”raisin jack” or “orange wine” are prepared for effect more than taste. Once the kicker is added to the base mixture, the fermentation of sugar into alcohol begins. Within five to seven days, depending on the ingredients, a liquid is produced that is anywhere from 10 to 20 percent alcohol (again, depending on the base). A sizable portion is usually strained off for immediate consumption at this point, fresh fruit pulp and sugar water added, and the whole thing started over. However, neither that step nor a starting mixture is necessary if yeast is available.
The advantage to using yeast is that it cuts the time factor, often critical in a prison setting, by about one-third. In place of actual yeast, a fistful of raw dough may be dissolved in warm water and used immediately in place of a kicker. No matter how well hidden the container, though, smell is the worst enemy of convict pruno makers, who usually “cook up a batch” five gallons at a time. In some cases, a vent hose is forced behind the trap in a toilet and the fumes safely exhausted. Or a sponge soaked in a deodorant can be placed over the vent hole on the container itself, thereby masking the giveaway odor. Inventiveness and ingenuity however, are on the convict’s side. Rarely does The Man bust more wine than is drunk.
I have been told by men at several different institutions that many guards nowadays are reluctant to “beef” you—write a disciplinary report—for reefer. But the same pot-lenient guards will seldom give you a pass for alcohol. Because of its reputation for producing monsters from mild-mannered men, prison-brewed hooch is feared more by staff than any other drug. Witness the brutal bloodiest at New Mexico’s Santa Fe prison in February 1980. Documented evidence now points to a batch of raisin jack as the trigger—although not the cause—of this riot.
Way down on the list of preferences— somewhere between “Fuck that shit!” and “You must be crazy, sucker!—is glue, or any of the petroleum distillates containing toluene or carbon tetrachloride. An interesting aside, which comes from the Federal Penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington (now closed), is that, of the Indian prisoners there, glue was the drug of preference. Considering its status with the general population, the reader may draw his own conclusions.
Prisons create their own drug market. Drugs bring a sense of relief—relief from boredom, escape from the “dead zone” (as Stephen King calls it) of enforced numbness that encases a man in prison like an insect embedded in amber. Of course, set and setting figure into this to an extraordinary degree in prison.
Virtually all prisons are constructed so that the housing units consist of either multitiered rows of cells, or a dormitory. In most instances, the line officer patrols periodically checking for prohibited behavior and making his presence known to maintain order In the conflict between the desire to get high in a relaxed and comfortable setting—one’s own “house”—and the necessity for precaution in order to prevent a trip to The Hole, the very expenditure of energy to reconcile one with the other detracts from the fullness of the high. Conversely, in a situation where set and setting are complementary an otherwise meager high can blossom into something memorable. Most prisons have a yard where, even under the watchful eyes of the guards in the towers, the careful convict can easily blow a joint with little or no danger of being caught.
Another place of relative security is the auditorium or gymnasium when a movie is being shown. Rarely do guards venture into this area after the lights are dimmed and in many prisons there is a tacit understanding between staff and inmates that smoking will be condoned as long as there is no violence. In the words of one prisoner: “When you know The Man isn’t interested in busting anyone during the flick, it makes getting high there just that much sweeter.”
A good deal of the violence in most prisons is drug related, and although much of this can be attributed to the traffic in heroin, no category of drug is blameless. Because of the ridiculously inflated prices of drugs, and the corresponding scarcity of money or resources available to the average convict, conflicts inevitably arise. In the early ’60s, at the California Medical Facility near Vacaville (which presently houses Juan Corona and Charles Manson), one of the heroin dealers inside the joint was found out to be a rat, supplying information to The Man in exchange for immunity. One day shortly after a visit, he was attacked and killed in his cell. Wasting no opportunity in their bloody business, his attackers slit open his stomach and scooped out the balloons he had earlier swallowed. In 1975, a prisoner at Joliet State Prison in Illinois had his eyes gouged out by a man to whom he owed money for drugs. After he fingered his assailant and was locked up in “protective custody” he was gang-raped for becoming a snitch. Seldom, however, are methods this unusual employed. Most often the offending party is dealt with swiftly and lethally. Convicts have a name for it: steel poisoning. As recently as 1980, in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, an inmate was stabbed to death because he failed to pay for less than a half ounce of marijuana. The medical report stated that his head was “almost severed from [his] torso” because of the “number and intensity of [his] wounds.” Obviously prison is no place for the deadbeat.
The other side of this coin is that if there were no drugs available at all, the strain of living day to day with so many others in such a butthole-to-bellybutton environment would quickly breed just as much and perhaps even more violence than the drug-related kind. About the only solution that would not create more problems is for the prisons to dispense drugs on demand. Since this is hardly in the works for the near future in any U.S. prison, most inmates will have to be content with whatever schemes they are using presently.
Sometimes I can’t help but marvel at the convoluted maze set up to assure a delivery of drugs. The following story comes to me from a man who is presently incarcerated in one of the federal government’s maximum security prisons: It seems in late ’79 a guard at one of the federal correctional centers (jails) near a major metropolitan area was flashing his paycheck around, taunting the inmates with how much he was sucking up from the government teat. In revenge, one of these men was able to successfully snatch this check right out of the asshole’s shirt pocket without being seen. As soon as the loss was discovered, the entire facility was locked down and every inmate and his cubicle was searched. Nothing was turned up. A few weeks later this check was successfully spirited to the previously mentioned prison. From there it was smuggled out and mailed across the country to a major department store to be cashed. (Uncle Sam’s checks are as good as gold anywhere in the country for up to 90 days.) After being cashed, 60 percent of the original amount was sent back to the convict’s confederates, who used this money to purchase a kilo of marijuana that was then smuggled into the prison. Uncle treated all around. Justice could never have been more poetic.
Read the full issue here.