In Prison, I Had to Get my Psychiatric Medication from Other Inmates

By Rhanie Mae 07/26/16

If the goal of the correctional system is to “correct” criminal behavior, then prescribing the correct medication to people with mental health issues should be a priority.

Getting Medicated in Prison
Lucky for me, it all worked out.

Dealing with addiction is a day-to-day struggle. Right now, I’m grateful that I’m not dealing with active addiction anymore—but I’m dealing with something else that’s really difficult. 

I just got out of prison.

Getting out was, of course, my major goal in life for the time I was locked up. It is something I looked forward to with great joy. But I’ve been locked up before and I knew all along that getting out would be incredibly difficult.

In theory, the criminal justice system mandates some support network in the form of drug treatment. Even if you’ve served years behind bars and been clean the entire time, parole typically requires either an inpatient or outpatient drug treatment program.

Of course, in theory, such programs are supposed to teach you to deal with triggers and cravings—but in my case, the problems surrounding my recovery were more than just worrying about triggers and cravings. Like many drug users, I was struggling with preexisting mental health issues. While some addicts use illegal drugs to self-medicate in a counterproductive and damaging way, for some of us, finding a psychiatric medication that works can be life-saving. 

After attempting to get clean on and off for 10 years, my feeling was that if I could find the right mental health meds to treat the underlying problem, then my cravings for other substances would disappear. So I worked with mental health counselors thoroughly and often to identify that underlying problem—social anxiety and depression. Together, we found that the non-narcotic prescription drug gabapentin was a great solution. It not only treated my daily anxiety and depression, but it also completely negated any cravings for narcotics that once possessed me. 

Gabapentin helped me stay clean for almost three years. But then I got kicked out of a parole-mandated outpatient treatment program for interacting with a member of the opposite sex—in a program that completely bans any such interactions. It wasn’t a great decision, but it had some really negative consequences.

I went back to prison but the problem was that, once I was state property, the state would not pay for gabapentin because they did not recognize it as a prescription that treated anxiety. So they simply stopped giving it to me. I managed to stay clean on the inside anyway—but mainly because I continued to take my prescribed medication illegally while locked up, scoring pills from other inmates. I knew I was running a big risk—it could have landed me in solitary confinement. But I knew I needed it for my mental well-being. 

There was a part of me that wanted to beat myself up for that decision every single day. I did not want to have to practice addictive behaviors on a regular basis simply to get a medication I needed. I may have been able to finish my bid without any depressive episodes or relapses, but I definitely believe that I would not have gotten as much accomplished if I did not continue to buy my medication on the underground market. Because I was able to keep my anxiety and depression in check, I managed to get a lot done behind bars. I got accepted into Bard College’s prison college program and left with a GPA of 4.0—and I’m pretty sure that’s not something I’d have been able to do if I were mired in the depths of depression.

Don't get me wrong, I tried to get my meds the legal way. I disclosed my problems to the mental health worker that was assigned to me while I was incarcerated. I was completely honest with him about my situation and although he sympathized with me, his hands were tied. There was nothing he could do to help me. I wrote to the head of the psychiatric department to see if they could make an exception. My letter was forwarded to my psychiatrist at the facility, unopened. 

I tried to go through the prison medical doctor to get it prescribed legally. I talked to my alcohol and substance abuse counselor. I ended up left with two options: attempt to adjust to this harsher environment without my mental health medication or get it in a way that could potentially get me into more trouble than I had already gotten myself into. I chose the latter.

I made it through my parole violation with any repercussions—because I was lucky enough not to get caught. But then—like most inmates—I had to parole to the same area I had been in before. I knew that, for an addict, returning to the same area where I’d had an active addiction could be a very dangerous situation. It can be even more dangerous for someone who is now left without a prescription of a medication that they need on a daily basis. 

Fortunately for me, I did have some things going in my favor. I had some advantages—like a supportive family, a place to stay, and a counselor that I had already built a rapport with from before prison. When I got out, right away this counselor was willing to help me. Best of all, I was able to honestly explain my predicament. 

Before I even had my mental health or drug treatment appointment, my counselor emailed a psychiatrist at the facility that I would be attending for outpatient and explained my situation. Had I not been able to trust my counselor, I would have been too afraid to tell them that I was continuing my prescribed medicine illegally; this would have caused a number of problems. I would have either had to quit taking it until I saw a doctor, which could take months; or, I would be forced to look for it elsewhere, as I did when I was incarcerated. I think both of those options would have been a recipe for relapse. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do either. I was able to meet with my counselor and tell her the truth about my issue. She vouched for me and was able to get a psychiatrist in the building to prescribe me a bridge script—weekly—until I was able to get in to see the doctor for myself. 

It is now July 13th and my first appointment with my doctor was two days ago. I have been out of the correctional facility since May 17th. This is an awfully large gap between being released and finally being able to get in touch with a person who can manage my medication. In my case, medication management was an incredibly important component of recovery—but it was one the system just isn’t always well-equipped to deal with.

A lot of the problems associated with getting out of prison are obvious. There are triggers, it’s easy to get a wider array of drugs. There might be housing problems. It might be hard to get a job. But sometimes the biggest problem is the one that people don’t think about as much. The right medication can make the difference between staying free and ending up back behind bars.

For me, it all worked out. There were a lot of hoops to jump through, but I finally got my meds. The thing is, it really shouldn’t be a fight. If the goal of the correctional system is to “correct” criminal behavior, then prescribing the correct medication to people with mental health issues should be a priority.

I was lucky that I had a support network and knew a good counselor who was able to help me get the medication I needed. But what if I hadn’t? What about the people who don’t? 

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