OD In Prison

Tonight while in the yard I found myself having to seek out emergency medical attention for one of my peers. He was unresponsive and suffering from a drug overdose. While the logical action is obvious, the situation in here is complicated by the complexities of a warped prison culture which dictates that involving facility staff is only an option of last resort. 


The individual had been unresponsive for well over an hour. His body was limp, skin ashen, and lips purple. Had it not been for a faint pulse I would have thought him already dead. He was accompanied by cohorts, also stoned and doing their best to get him to come around—jostling his body, pouring water on him—but nothing was working. He just lay on the ground, limp. 


While they certainly wanted to help, none wanted to be the one to alert the staff. I understand as much, in a way most outside the prison environment might not. Prison is a world where well-meaning intentions can result in negative consequences.


Case in point: recently one of my friends who had a history of mental health issues was experiencing a breakdown. We advised him to get counseling from OMH. Rather than investigating the origin of his woes, which was a dissolving personal relationship, his visit with an OMH counselor resulted in being put in a tank with the claim that his behavior was a result of smoking the drug K2. This wasn’t the case whatsoever. Fact is, the individual doesn’t even use drugs. Despite our best efforts OMH dealt with him cruelly. That’s prison for you.


Back to the present. I am witnessing a group of individuals trying to get their friend through and not “blowing up” the situation. This is going on in the shadow of A Block, where six months earlier, on New Year’s Day, Dave DeGondia died of a lethal drug overdose. Dave was a living legend across the state prison system, known for his exploits. Unfortunately for him, he was a habitual heroin user and his warrior prowess was no match for fentanyl. In the instance of Dave’s overdose, he was only discovered after his hot pot began to melt. The smell of burning plastic drew the attention of a porter who found him lying prostate on the floor of his cell. Apparently Dave had used, and was preparing a meal when the substance overpowered his system. No one was aware of what was happening to even alert someone for help.


Meanwhile, here I am staring at this man (whom I also knew) lying unresponsive. I didn’t want to get involved and hoped their efforts to revive him would work. But eventually the situation called for someone to step in, otherwise he was going to die right in front of us. I walked over and offered to get help.


By this time half the yard knew that the situation wasn’t good. Some passersby offered advice on how to revive him while others commented that medical attention should be sought. I made my intentions clear to the group that I was going to get help. While crossing the yard I was hoping he would regain consciousness and they would call my name to stop. That didn’t happen.


As I approached the area where the guards were congregated I spotted one whom I felt would A/ take the situation seriously, and B/ know how to deal with it appropriately. Truth is, while all guards are supposed to be “trained” in these scenarios, this “training” doesn’t necessarily mean they will apply it correctly (not to mention a portion could give a f#@! less). 


I addressed the guard by name and informed her that there was a man suffering from a drug overdose and in need of immediate medical attention. Fortunately I have a reputation for being straight up, so she took my words for what they were. She asked where; I directed her and we began heading in that direction. She asked if I knew what the drugs were. I hoped the others didn’t hear the question; I quietly spoke “I’m certain it’s heroin.” She yelled for her co-workers to hurry with a Narcan kit.


A few minutes after Narcan was administered, he came back to life. Still lying on the ground, he looked around trying to make sense of the situation. I now stood at a distance watching. I felt relief mixed with anxiety. How would this man feel about me going to get staff? Would he suffer consequences? Some time later, medical arrived on the scene and put on a good show by placing the now-alert man on a stretcher and wheeling him out of the yard to the clinic.


It wouldn’t take long for my concerns to be answered. As chance would have it, he and I bumped into one another the very next morning. He had just been released from the infirmary and was returning to his cell block. In that moment he was unaware that I was the one to take the walk for help. He was just happy to see a friendly face. I told him about it—how he was unresponsive and I thought that he was going to die if I didn’t get help. To my relief he said “Don’t worry about it, thank you” and gave me a friendly embrace.


The next evening while I was in the yard, the same guard I had approached for help was working. I waited for the yard to settle in, and when everyone was going about their own business I went over and thanked her. She gave me a nod. Implicit in the gesture was a tacit understanding that there exists a divide in the caste system between prisoners and staff, but sometimes we have to be able to bridge this divide for the sake of something . . . humanity? Nah, not in here. Life? Maybe. Once it’s gone you can’t get it back.


Regardless of these existential rabbit holes I’m grateful this particular guard was working that evening. Had she not, this story might have a different ending.