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Prison Life magazine, January-February 1996, pp. 46-51 & 54-55

Junk in the Joint: The Real Dope on the Prison Drug Scene

by Jennifer Wynn
additional reporting by Chris Cozzone
George Gray, Al Levin,
Marc Levin, Daphne Pinkerson
Photos by Chris Cozzone [omitted here]

Jerry Pelley has a habit. He stole to feed his habit. He went to prison and found the same drugs he did on the streets in the joint. Think he'll ever come out clean and sober, fully rehabilitated? If the American government were really serious about winning the war on drugs, wouldn't prisons be the most drug-free places of all? Think about it: What other environment offers more opportunity for control? With cops and cameras galore, solitary confinement, lockdown, stun guns, searches and high security, prisons should be squeaky clean.

Yet the drug scene rages in prison. The drug business in the joint is as profitable and as structured as it is on the streets. Dealers get rich, prisoners die of overdoses, guards are on the take and junkies walk out after years of confinement, ready to do whatever it takes for another fix.

"Nobody can convince me that there's a county jail, a prison or any other place where people are locked up that there aren't drugs," says the former warden of East Jersey State Prison, Patrick Arvonio, 20 years on the job.

"I think there's a drug problem in every prison," says Justin Jones, assistant regional director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. "Just recently, one of our prisoners on death row took an overdose of drugs the night before he was going to be executed. They had to revive him so they could kill him. The point is, somebody got the drugs in, even in maximum security, on death row. Nobody in their right mind would say their prison is drug-free."

Between 1986 and 1991, the number of adults in state and federal prisons on drug-related charges has more than tripled.

"Prison is a microcosm of the streets," says Jack Cowley, formerly the warden of Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite. "Whatever's out there is gonna be in here . . . the drugs, the violence, generally all the bad characteristics of what's on the streets."

Visit just about any state institution and you'll find a thriving drug trade. Neither prisoners nor authorities hesitate to talk about drugs openly. When we visited the state prison in Granite, we spoke with Jerry Pelley, sentenced to 175 years for five drug-related robberies.

Are you drug-free?

"No. No. No."

You're not afraid for us to print that?


What's your drug of choice?

"Cocaine, speed, heroin. Whatever comes in. There's no way they can keep drugs out. They've been trying for as long as they've had prisons, but they haven't done it. And now, with the drug war raging in here and out there, I don't see any difference."

Ralph Sowell, a crack dealer doing 21 years at East Jersey State Prison, boasts about dealing. "I've been selling drugs ever since I came to prison, and I've never been caught," he says. "You can make approximately $3,500 to $4,000 a week here selling drugs. Anything they sell on the street is triple in here. A $10 bag of dope on the streets goes for as much as $40 in here. And everybody wants a piece of the pie."

East Jersey's Lieutenant Connell is well apprised of Ralph's drug dealing: "The rumor we get is that he'll do 5 to 10 bundles a visit. You're talking about 50 to 100 bags per visit, three times a week. On the street a bundle goes for about $70. In here, you can sell it for about $300. So he can make about a $230 profit per bundle, and if he's doing 10 bundles like is rumored from some of the information we get, you're talking $2,300 a visit two or three times a week. That's a lot of money."

It's more than a C.O. makes.

Authorities seem resigned to the fact that shutting down operations like Ralph Sowell's wouldn't make much of a difference in the prison drug business.

"We'd be very naive to think that if we put Ralph Sowell out of business that would change the drug trade in this institution," says Lt. Connell. "When he falls, five different dealers will come to the forefront to take his place. So it doesn't matter if we frisk Ralph's cell or Joe Jones's cell. You have so many inmates incarcerated for drug-related crimes, who are involved in narcotics on the street and want to perpetuate that addiction while they're in jail, and if the demand is here, someone will find the supply."

Naturally, corrections officials blame visitors for bringing in the drugs. "Women carry drugs in their vagina," says Lt. Frank Pascucci, a 20-year veteran of East Jersey State Prison, "and then pass them on to inmates who bring it back in their mouth or in their anus. And there's no frisk known to man that's gonna find it there," he laughs.

Sometimes a snitch tips officials to the name of a dealer expecting a package through a visit. Officials get the names of the people on the dealer's visiting list and try to apprehend them before they get to the joint. But clever cons can thwart even well-planned efforts.

"The dealer has an unrelated inmate's girlfriend bring it in and give it to her boyfriend, who in turn will pass it to someone, who in turn will pass it to Ralph Sowell or somebody like Ralphy," reports another East Jersey official. "His girlfriend's clean, he's clean. We can squat on him as often as we want, frisk him as often as we want, try to bust his visitor coming in and she won't have it. But the stuff will still be coming in and it will be his."

East Jersey official Tim Dill believes there's no end in sight to the drug trade in prison. "There are just too many ways to get drugs in," he concedes. "We've had some ingenious attempts."

Like the time someone sent green olives in a food package. The pimentos had been removed and replaced with small red balloons filled with heroin.

"We once found drugs in a jar of peanut butter," says Lt. Connell. "Dug down deep and found narcotics." The jar had been heated in a microwave to smooth out the peanut butter, and then resealed to give the appearance of being unopened.

"Once someone dropped off a pizza for a relative and underneath the cheese were decks of heroin," continues Lt. Connell. "It's limited only by the imagination."

The guards may complain about visits, but many say it is guards who do most of the drug smuggling. "Less than 10% of drugs come in through visits," says an experienced dealer who served a decade in federal institutions. "Just as on the streets, where you have drug cartels supported by corrupt government officials, the major drug operations in prison rely on collusion with authorities; on corrupt guards who abuse their power for profit. The major drug operation in one federal joint where I did time involved two guards who picked up drugs at a P.O. Box, brought them in a week later, and got paid on the street from the dealers' freeworld associates," he says.

"The drug business here is very lucrative," adds "Ringo," a Sing Sing convict with a decade down. "A lot of guards use dealing as a way to supplement their income, and they're always getting busted. I knew a prisoner who was awarded work release for getting a cop to bring in cocaine. He wouldn't have made it home that easy because be was in on his second murder charge.

"Just recently," he continues, "a recreation civilian got caught up in a sting. A rat bastard inmate set him up. The department of corrections gave him a microphone and marked money. The civilian got busted on the outside with the money he was supposed to buy drugs with."

On October 27, 1995, four corrections officers at a federal prison in Atlanta were indicted on charges of trying to smuggle marijuana, cocaine and heroin into the prison.

Since 1989, 13 staff members at the crowded, maximum-security state prison in Graterford, Pennsylvania have been arrested on charges of trying to smuggle drugs. Eleven prisoners have died of drug overdoses at Graterford and about 20 percent of the urine tests done on prisoners each month show signs of drug use. In March 1995, three prisoners were found in a cell, all with hypodermic needles and all unconscious from drug overdoses.

When 650 state troopers recently descended on Graterford in a surprise nighttime raid intended to curb the drug trade there, over 60 caches of drugs were seized. As a result, nine ranking officers at the prison retired or were transferred, and 21 prisoners suspected of drug trafficking were moved to other prisons, according to Martin F. Horn, Pennsylvania's Corrections Commissioner.

Heroin is the most popular prison drug because it puts you in a "fuck-it-all" type of mood. "You nod out and chill," says one con. Pot is a dangerous drug to use because it stays in your system too long, although users can sometimes succeed in "flushing" the drug from their system by drinking a lot of water.

"Cocaine doesn't seem to be as prevalent in prison because it's so expensive and, from what I've been told," says an East Jersey prison official, "it's a great high, but it's a short one. Whereas with heroin, you can buy one $30 bag and be high for nine or ten hours. Thirty dollars of cocaine might only last you 45 minutes."

As on the streets, drugs are cut with other substances to increase profits. In the joint, aspirin and flour are most commonly used. "I once heard of a guy who used his AZT medicine," says Ringo.

"Ten bucks will get you two caps
of reefer - enough for two slim

-- A "buyer" at an anonymous prison.

"But a lot of guys sell beat shit when they get bad packages from the street," he adds. Instead of not selling it, they do, causing big problems. It happens all the time. In fact, most of the stabbings and fights here are drug-related."

Anthony Goombi was in the disciplinary unit at Granite when we spoke with him. I'm in here for battery. They're saying it was over drugs. They say we robbed this guy for his dope. This other guy confronted us about stealing drugs from a guy. He says we robbed him for some marijuana and valiums."

With plenty of cash to buy goods from the commissary, privileges from guards and sex from other prisoners, dealers in the joint live well. "A drug dealer is looked upon highly here," says Ringo. "He's a big man. Usually he'll have bodyguards - flunky kids who like to get high - who will do everything for him."

Michael Jones, a.k.a. "Snowball," is doing life at East Jersey State Prison for first degree murder. Openly homosexual, he has been down for 20 years and knows the system inside and out. Although he doesn't do drugs, he has made himself into a kind of drug pimp, negotiating deals on behalf of junkies who only have their bodies to sell.

"Most of the time, if a guy's got a drug habit," he says, "he will have sex with another inmate for drugs. No matter what type of high he's on he will have sex with another guy in prison so he can get his drugs."

A new guy who wants drugs will go to a homosexual first, because they know that fags know mostly everybody," he says. "Now - if a guy just come in and he got a habit, and I know he got a habit, I'm going to make some money off of him. It's easy. I would take him to another prisoner and say 'Hey, you see this fine thing right here? You want a blow job? He's yours. You can get him and do him anyway you want to do him, just give him a little bit of that dope and give me a box of cigarettes for myself.'"

"There ain't nothin' you can't get in here
. . . I'll just smoke that weed and go lay
down in my cell, look at the TV. Fuckit,
I ain't gonna hurt nobody."

Snake Hill, a prisoner at Oklahoma State Reformatory.

At Sing Sing, says one convict, some strung-out guys who won't sell sexual services will sell things their family gives them, like sneakers, shirts and shampoo, for drugs. These are the "cold dope fiends, the guys who fuck up sooner or later when they run up a bill. They end up checking into protective custody."

Take Duane Hammery, for example. He's in protective custody at East Jersey Sate Prison because of an unpaid drug bill. "I did some heroin and I couldn't pay, so I came here. I was in fear for my life. I owed $100, and you can get hurt for that amount of money. In here, heroin is like gold."

But even in ad seg, an addict can still get a fix. "When you have an addiction to something," says another East Jersey State prisoner in ad seg, "it's a sickness. It's not something you can just stop, especially when you see other guys getting high. There's drugs in ad seg. There's drugs all over. There's more drugs in there than anywhere."

Because drugs have become so available in prison, and sentences for drug crimes span two and three decades, many people who don't come in as dope fiends pick up habits once they're in.

"There are so many guys who catch habits in here it's not funny," says Ringo. "Being locked up in a cage for 20 years sucks. It takes your heart away. You become an animal. You want to escape the reality, forget you've become part of the system, so you turn to drugs. You get high to forget all that you've lost."

Clearly, most people who buy junk in the joint are addicts, not recreational users. Those who want to quit say they don't have the support they need.

"Anybody who has done drugs all his life doesn't like them," says Jerry Pelley at Granite. "I was talking to a friend of mine last night, and I said, 'Dan, don't you wish we could quit?' And he said, 'Yeah, man. But it's just not that easy.'

"And it's not that easy. Especially when you don't have any support and you're doing so much time. They have one drug unit in this whole prison and it takes an act of Congress to get in . . . If you're doing a long time, like I am, you can't get in because they don't give a shit about you."

Can I get anything I want here?
"Sure. But it depends on when you want it."
"What are you looking for?"
"Fifty bucks will get you a shot of heroin.
About ten c.c.'s."

-- Interview with Anthony Goombi,
a prisoner in the Hole at Oklahoma State Reformatory
commenting on the drug trade there

Prisoners and authorities alike say that drug programs for prisoners are either nonexistent or are so poorly run as to be virtually ineffective. "The drug programs here are a joke," says a Sing Sing prisoner. "Guys who participate just do it to look good at the board. It's mandatory to get drug treatment if you have a drug crime. Bit the place where they give drug treatment is full of drug users and pushers."

Several studies sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have shown that professionally run drug treatment programs, on the whole, are successful in reducing drug abuse and crime among participants and in increasing their ability to hold a job. Treating drug addiction medically rather than criminally is also more cost-effective.

Case in point: In New York State, a one-year residential drug treatment program costs less than $20,000 per participant, whereas incarceration costs the state nearly $30,000 per prisoner, according to the Correctional Association of New York.

Research and rationale aside, allocating money for the rehabilitation of convict drug addicts isn't high on the public's priority list. Former Warden Arvonio paints a grim picture of the combined results of America's failed war on drugs, mandatory minimums and the lack of funding for drug treatment:

"The mandatory minimum sentence in New Jersey started with a new penal code in 1979. Since then, many more people have been locked up, so obviously the mandatory minimum is not a deterrent. All it did was make us more crowded.

"Meanwhile, I am not getting any more resources to run the kind of treatment programs these drug addicts need. Even though a guy may commit an assault or armed robbery, the fact remains that when he goes back out on the street he's going to continue to use drugs, he's going to continue to be involved in that culture. There's a feeling in the general public that once you've been in prison, some miracle's going to happen so that when you go back out there, you aren't going to commit crimes anymore. Well, there is no miracle. We're basically warehousing people."


Portland NORML notes: This "Special HBO Issue" of Prison Life (which coincided with a television special on the same topic by the HBO cable network) focuses on the war on some drugs and features an amazingly graphic full-color cover photo taken as "A prisoner shoots up in his cell," by Chris Cozzone, as the Table of Contents on p. 4 states. The Table of Contents listing for "Junk in the Joint" also states, "Get High. Do crime. Go to the joint. Get high. Do crime. Nothing changes. The drug economy knows no barriers." A different, black-and-white photo of another inmate injecting himself backgrounds the first two pages of the article itself on pages 46-47. Other photographs show: Patrick Arvonio, former warden of East Jersey State Prison; an anonymous hand holding two "caps" (tied and torn-off plastic bags) of marijuana; Snake Hill, a prisoner at Oklahoma State Reformatory; and Anthony Goombi, a prisoner in the Hole at Oklahoma State Reformatory.

Prison Life is a bimonthly of the same high glossy quality as Life or Time magazines. For subscription information call 1 (800) 207-2659, fax 1 (713) 694-8131 or write to Prison Life Magazine, Subscription Department, 1436 West Gray, Suite 531, Houston, TX 77019. Rates are $23.70 per year (six issues), $35 in Canada, an additional $12 elsewhere, all payable in U.S. funds only. For other information write to the publishers, Joint Venture Media of Texas, Inc., at the same address.


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