The Lost

He smashed the coffee mug on the floor and quickly reached down for a broken shard, jabbing it repeatedly into his bare forearm until two prison officers tackled him off the bench. Blonde hair swept over his puffy face and he lay limply on the floor. Neil had achieved the desired result, got his pain. The blood didn’t gush out like it would if an artery had been caught but he had made three or four good wounds which would require medical attention. Neil allowed himself to be picked up under both arms and dragged gently to the secure lift and down to the nurses on the floor below. They’d stitch him up with as minimal sympathy as they could muster and he’d be back behind his perspex fronted Hannibal Lecter door before evening bang up.

One of the surprising things about prison to me was the sheer number of people who were quite honestly in the wrong place; people who should have been receiving treatment from professionals in an environment where they could make progress. In every jail I ever worked in, their medical wings bulged with them, shrieking, covering themselves in shit, or staring through empty eyes into the middle distance and shuffling around like long balls of fluff on lino. Too many got even more damaged inside. If mental health deterioration led to any of the offences these poor sods had committed then surely it was a no-brainer to cut to the root of the problem? Apparently not. Most are shoehorned into what are called “Healthcare Units”, ostensibly to provide a bit of protection from the sharks living on normal location, but also to cut down on the workload of the small team of nurses and the visiting psychiatrist. The effect of mass housing this many people with severe psychiatric problems created a unnerving and forlorn atmosphere. One minute the unit would be silent, the next there’d be screams and banging, or heavy sobs. At any time there could be any one of a number of human fluids pooling out from beneath cell doors. Healthcare Units are a bit like the ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, only without the humour or the humanity…

I was called up to the healthcare unit to assess a guy who had requested drug input. All I knew about him was his age – 35 – his name (Billy) and his apparent main drug problem – heroin.

Now, before I go on, don’t get me wrong, I’m no Bruce Lee, and I’m not one to usually enjoy a fight, but I’d been on all the Krav Maga (Look it up. Explore the Violence) training over seven years and could probably make a good go of things against most people. I’d been taught how to take an eyeball out, break a nose, break an arm/leg/wrist, and even how to fight when I was lying on the floor being kicked in the head. Still, I wouldn’t want to hurt someone, not unless there wasn’t another option – and there was always another option in my experience. Billy was just another day at work.

He came from out of his cell followed by a Prison Officer with a head like a Beluga Whale. Billy was tall, maybe 6’4″, with receding blonde hair in about seven or eight matted dreadlocks. “Hey!!! Drug Worker!!!” he shouted, “I’ve been waiting to see you man. Good to see you, good to see you.” He sat down and I shook his hand and smiled. He was looking around quickly like he expected to see something threatening appear from out of the ether. I could see that in his dreadlocks he had woven some feathers from the feral prison pigeons, brightly coloured thread, and those green T shaped string things with metal ends some people use to keep documents together. “You know none of this is my fault don’t you?” he asked.

“What can I do for you Billy?”

“I mean…….the nurse at the hospital……I………She….. I mean, they were trying to steal my blood, see I’ve got this special blood and it can cure things – cancer, AIDS, you name it. I got injected when I was little and now they are following me.”

“Billy, the past is OK, let’s leave it there my friend. How are you doing in here right now with your addiction? How are you feeling?”

“I kicked her hard man. Really hard. Right in the stomach. I mean….she was coming for me you understand, to take my blood. I didn’t know she was pregnant…” He tailed off into silence and stared over my shoulder. I watched his eyes glaze up, frosted and distant.

“Billy. Do you actually have a drug problem?” It sounded harsh under the circumstances, but I got the feeling I was there for Billy to let off some steam, which was fine but I wasn’t the guy trained to be offering up talking therapies with someone so clearly paranoid and complicated. The Officer – who had been standing two feet behind Billy the entire time – shook his massive head at me.
“I get so angry,” Billy whispered, staring at me. Then he got up and walked off back to his cell, the Officer following. A few seconds later came a blood curdling scream. Doors started to be kicked and punched from the other inmates.

I was not attacked, but I was told later that Billy had planned to do in a Drug Worker but didn’t fancy it when he’d seen me; good fortune for us both.

As for Neil, they put him on constant observation again – a Nurse sat reading a book right in front of his perspex cell door twenty four hours a day. There was even a camera I think. But he still manged to strangle himself, slowly slipping off his prison jumper under his sheets in bed and tying it in a knot around his neck – pulling gradually and making a good job of it all. They saved him just in time. He was assigned a prison psychologist on a more regular basis – a guy who’d I’d employ about three years down the line – and he hadn’t even qualified. God only knows what Neil thought while Anthony (the psychology student masquerading as the beacon of help) boomed his patronising voice down on him among the stark walls and dirty sheets. I know I’d crack.

Something in the system is broken when we house so many damaged people in the Hell-pits of Healthcare Units. Sure, lip service is given to “Counselling”, or therapeutic interventions but from what I witnessed, those damaged souls would have been better off living wild with wolves than listening to the poorly trained counselling staff and putting their advice into practice. Being in prison shouldn’t mean serving time and getting out in a worse state than when you went in. Am I getting it wrong here, or does this make complete sense?

The phrase “reached the bottom” never meant anything to me until I’d been in prison healthcare units. Inside there is no redemption, no happy ending and no clear way forward. They are truly lost.

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Ranking the Unrankable

There is a hierarchy of drug use and drug users. Maybe you’re aware of it, maybe you’re even firmly on the list; many of us are. This list exists purely mentally but your position – be under no illusion – on it carries a lot of weight with people once they know.  And amongst those of us in the know, your ranking defines you more than any ideology you hold dear, shamefully.

The Powder Cocaine user – The myth is diminishing, but this group of drug users still reign at the top of the tree. They are perceived as well off (or at least able to afford a gram at a weekend), going places, and cocaine is still a drug associated with trendy bars and glamour. Though they may look down on most of the others in the list the last laugh is well and truly on them. The last Police purity report I had a look at for the area I worked in showed consistent purity levels of around 35% – but every regular coke user will swear their dealer sells the best. Love snorting baby milk or lindocaine? Buy coke. In the ease of adulteration of a drug there really are no exceptions. Oh the heady heights of nasal surgery – the hydrochloride element of cocaine hydrochloride mixes with nasal mucous and and produces hydrocholric acid. It’s what eats the septums of z list celebs.  But Cocaine spells rich, rich, rich to your friends. Number one. Synthesise it into crack however…and the crack cocaine user would be somewhere around the bottom of the list. Weird eh.

Cannabis – The most widely spread illegal drug in the UK. By miles. The real boom occurred once HM Customs got more sophisticated in the early 90s: which made the importation of cannabis resin more hazardous. This left a gap in the market which was exploited by Asian gangs (and anybody now with a spare room, lots of tin foil, patience, luck, and a way around their electric meter) who moved into shit houses on run-down estates and realised that the market share could be gained by simply growing some high strength weed inside under lamps. The production of hashish takes too much time and too many plants, so the weed boom was born. No hiding things in diesel tanks or, if you were Howard Marks, in Pink Floyd’s speakers. Now you just grow the plants, harvest them, bag, sell. It’s child’s play. Cannabis users are so commonplace that they consider themselves normal citizens, which enables them to frown on most other drug users. Nobody ever heard of someone robbing an old lady for money to buy weed eh……..?

The M-Kat gerbils – A new and disturbing group of mostly young drug users. As large European gangs figured out how to make and sell mind-altering substances en mass without having to live under the constant threat of showering with a man called “Bubba” for twenty years, they decided to exploit a loophole of the medicines act. First you develop a synthetic substance which is as chemically close to the drug you are mimicking without actually being that substance (and making sure it costs you less money to produce), then you check it isn’t instantly poisonous, then bingo.  By selling something and clearly labelling it “Not for human consumption” you get around the fact most people ingest it willingly – you also get around all food and medicines legislation in the UK. Which means until the government can catch up, the product is legal. The practice of using is based purely on stupidity – I suppose it’s a bit like buying nappies and eating them, legally speaking it’s your fault if you die. The thing about this group of drug users is they are little more than lab rats, gerbils, beagles. There is no research into the long term effects of M-Kat or any of its siblings. A night on M-Kat is truly a voyage into discovery – will I get brain cancer? But the youth and burgeoning culture growing up around drugs which are perceived to be safer than ecstasy gives this group validation and an errant “Coolness”. They are expanding and in my humble opinion this is the future of illegal drug use for the foreseeable decade or two….or more. Technology. Kids today…

The Psychonauts – A dying breed, and getting your hands on LSD or Mescaline or any one of the dwindling number of true hallucinogens (yes, I’m aware cannabis is classified as a hallucinogen….) is almost impossible outside of cities. LSD production hardly ever took place large scale in the UK, and mescaline is almost impossible to find. Magic mushrooms are still growing wild and free but too few people make use of them – after all, gone are the days where people want to sit watching an evil superman rape their grandmother for eight hours straight. Fashion has killed the hallucinogens – excepting for, perhaps, Ketamine – and many, many, fragile minds are safer for it. You can, if desperate, grow peyote cacti, but one button can take twenty plus years to harvest. Still incredibly illegal (I think all are still Class A) and fading into history, only the K-Hole navigators still plumb the depths of the “inner journey”, and heavy Ket users mostly all end up pissing into a bag once their bladders have rotted away.

Heroin – It’s this group of drug users who cause massive amounts of crime and damage. Heroin is easier and easier to get as the years go by. However, it is not produced in the UK at all – even the morphine to diamorphine stage – but it trickles in all the same. A truly hooked heroin user may well step over their own baby to score a hit and the power of heroin addiction is never to be underestimated. This apparently perceived weakness (and the consequent lack of trust given by those around the user) lends other drug users to look down on the fragile and out of control heroin user. In truth, in my experience, crack is easily as destructive a drug as heroin, but heroin is the blue ribbon shop-lifting burglary catalyst, at least to the media. It occupies the number one bad boy position. Not one of you would want their child to use street heroin, of that I’m sure.

Booze – Maybe it shouldn’t be on the list at all but alcohol is the one drug that even heroin addicts look down upon (those who aren’t alcoholics themselves – of which there are many). It’s ironic that the legal and acceptable drug in the list is the one every full blown addict from any of the other substances would laugh at. I still can’t work it out. But here’s the rub: every single alcoholic I ever met or treated had zero sympathy or empathy for any heroin, crack, or Benzo addict. The whole hatred goes full circle – which is exactly how the people in charge like things. Keep us at each other, or watching fucking xfactor. It stops us from looking in the right direction.

Of course, this list isn’t comprehensive, and it’s not designed to provoke you to look down on anyone else. I guess, in my experience, in terms of the “Loser rankings” all I learned is we’re all in there one way or another, even those of you who touch nothing illegal at all. But there is no-one worse than a self-righteous drug freak with no end in sight to their problems, who spends too much time evading the law. We all drink from the same shitty cup folks. Keep safe out there….