A prison drug-smuggler's story
Before my first jail stint, I used the
herb St. John's wort to treat the depression that had led me into
heroin addiction. I'd also used Chinese herbs, antioxidants and
other alternative treatments to deal with HIV. These legal medical
strategies helped to keep me clean and healthy in the years before
my 1995 relapse.
I did four months for heroin possession and shoplifting at the
Multnomah County Restitution Center in Portland, Oregon. A
work-release facility, it allowed me out for my daily job. When I
asked the jail staff about bringing in my alternative treatments, I
was told they weren't approved. Not looking for a fight, I simply
did what prisoners have always done: I smuggled in the pills after
work, hiding them in my crotch.
When my "stash" was discovered during a room search, I was sent
to the maximum-security Inverness Jail in Troutdale. There I found
heroin, cocaine and tobacco, smuggled in by hacks, inmates and
visitors, but not a trace of any alternative treatment. So I wrote a
letter to my sentencing judge. She quickly ordered my return to
Multnomah, where I served out my remaining three months,
uneventfully and unmedicated.
A few years later I briefly relapsed into active addiction, which
led to a 10-day jail sentence at the Portland Justice Center on a
bad-check charge. This time, I had my primary Western and
alternative physicians write to the medical staff, requesting that I
have access to my alternative therapies.
Permission was granted, but -- locked down 22 hours a day behind
heavy steel -- I couldn't hear the first five med calls. I had to
ask a guard to note in the log book that she should buzz my cell
each time the nurse came. When I finally saw the nurse, it took him
yet another day to track down my meds.
Unfortunately, my experiences are just mild examples of the
medical neglect afforded most PWAs in prison. "It can be a tough
battle even getting combination therapies on time, let alone
multivitamins, nutritional food or alternative medications," says
Jackie Walker, coordinator of the ACLU's AIDS in Prison Project.
Even here in the Northwest, where many insurance companies cover
acupuncture and herbs, inmates are routinely denied alternative
options. Karen Campbell, an herbalist and Oregon State Penitentiary
guard who directs that prison's AIDS program, says, "My attempt to
give inmates access to something as innocuous as herbal teas was
stymied by the administration's lack of understanding of these
remedies." But she has heard of institutions where prisoner-tended
decorative gardens sprout healthy crops of such flowering medicinal
herbs as comfrey and yarrow. "I love seeing that ability to be
healers come out in those we've identified as criminals," she says.
"It's time we started nurturing that potential in everyone."