Staying Clean and Sober Inside

By Rhanie Mae 08/31/15

It’s easier to stay clean on the streets than it is in prison. Prison is a game of survival.


Sobriety is hugely dependent on the mindset of an individual. Happy people do not need mind-altering substances. In my experience with addiction, addicts tend to have similarities in the way they cope with stressful situations, are usually acutely sensitive, and oftentimes have trouble controlling their moods. A large portion have other mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, ADD and social disorders. Generally, addicts resort to one thing—drugs—when feelings of hopelessness set in. Although people—especially addicts—are resilient, we tend to deal with our emotions by escaping. So what better way to feel free in prison than by using? 

Prison is a game of survival. Not literally, but in the sense that a person is almost stripped of their higher consciousness of self and often they’re operating on a more primitive level. It’s just what you need to do to get by. In my own experience, I find that potentially traumatic situations usually encourage me to return to my drug of choice. It’s not that I don’t take responsibility for my addiction; it’s just that I recognize what my triggers are, and I know that prison is filled with them.

In Narcotics Anonymous there’s a saying that the only possible outcomes of using are “jails, institutions, and death.” These are inevitable. Eventually, if an addict keeps using, these things will happen. That’s an incredibly good motivating force to stay clean in the free world. Once a person becomes incarcerated, that eliminates two very valid motivators. Aside from death—and let’s face it, nobody takes that possibility seriously when they’re using—and possibly ending up in the box, there aren’t enough consequences to outweigh the seemingly beneficial aspects of using in jail, such as comfort and instant gratification. I’m not saying that larger consequences should be implemented. In fact, solitary confinement is a form of psychological torture and is probably more counterproductive. What I am saying, is that if you give someone nothing good to live for, it can start to feel like addiction is no worse than sobriety.

Aside from street drugs (which are smuggled in regularly) there is an underground medication exchange that simulates the drug scene in the free world. It allows addicts to continue their use behind bars and reinforces drug-seeking behaviors that may have been properly dealt with if an alternative to prison was available. Some of the aforementioned pill-poppers actually need medication that the state refuses to pay for, which almost forces them to behave as addicts. So—as other writers for The Fix have mentioned before—drugs are readily available behind bars. Sometimes, drug culture feels even more pervasive in prison than it does on the street.

The worst part is, I feel as if no one in the judicial system is in our corner. A New York State judge once told my attorney during a parole violation hearing, “I really want her to go do a year in prison. I think that would do her well.” This was after the parole revocation specialist had recommended a shorter, 90-day program. But instead, the judge based his opinion of me on facts highlighted in a parole packet about me. Needless to say, it’s never protocol to record any positive facts. 

Then, likely without any addiction training, he decided he knew what was best for me. My attorney went on to defend me, noting that if I’d “peed hot”—failed a drug test—I’d be sent to the 90-day program at Willard. Basically engaging in “slut-shaming” in a court of law, the judge replied, “She didn’t pee hot. She just got hot. Thirty months.” He was referring to the fact that I was discharged from treatment for having contact with a member of the opposite sex. In fact, we were only speaking; there wasn’t any contact. This is a common problem in treatment. Many treatment programs will remove people for opposite-sex contact. In early sobriety, it’s not uncommon for former users to shift their focus to other forms of gratification. Unfortunately, in my case that meant that instead of continuing to seek treatment elsewhere or trying to stay sober on my own, I got sent to prison for 2.5 years. I got sent to a place where it’s actually harder to stay sober.

Again, it’s not that I’m not taking any responsibility for my mistakes. I should have acted differently. But, looking back, I also see that 2.5 years in prison was probably the all-round least productive response—and one that seems to stem from a lack of understanding about addiction and the reality of how addiction functions behind bars.

That begs the question: If the police and judges are against us—or just don’t understand what’s at stake—and the correctional system only offers the bare minimum of help, then how are we supposed to get rehabilitation? And wouldn’t rehabilitation be the most sensible goal, seeing as it would reduce recidivism?

Oh, that’s right— the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision does not care about recidivism. (In fact, it’s worth noting that recidivism basically just means job security for those in corrections.) In fact, the initial push toward implementing prison programs in New York only came about after the infamous, bloody Attica riots. 

What happened to, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?” Are we not the epitome of huddled masses trying to escape a disease for which there is no known cure? We like to think of ourselves as an advanced society, far beyond the backward thinking of 50 or 100 years ago. But the truth is, we’re not. In fact, based on the skyrocketing incarceration rates over the past four decades, it seems that we’ve actually backtracked.

Does no one realize what we’re missing? Behind bars, I have met women who could be, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, “the best minds of my generation”—but they’re not just destroyed by the madness of which Ginsberg writes. They’re also destroyed by the madness of a broken correctional system. 

Rhain Mae is the alias for a woman currently incarcerated in the state of New York.

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