Texas’s “Drug-Busting” Prisons Lockdown Will Only Harm Us

From September 6 to October 16, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) implemented a “systemwide lockdown and comprehensive search” with the purported aim of “[addressing] a rise in dangerous contraband and drug-related inmate homicides.” 

Along with many others incarcerated here, I believe that such measures do nothing but harm. Rather, they lead to more violence and adverse health outcomes, and will not only fail to eradicate the drug market but could ultimately strengthen it. 

This lockdown caught all of us off guard. We’re used to a section or wing getting locked down for a day or two. But out of nowhere on September 6, they locked everything down, shut everything off and told us nothing… at first. 

Unit staff subsequently told us that they knew the lockdown was statewide. Then, on the new Securus tablets issued to prisoners here, videos appeared from TDCJ Executive Director Brian Collier and Inspector General Cris Love. They told us that “if you’re part of the narcotics trade, we are coming for you,” and “you will be caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” 

What’s changed is that now, we have better ways of getting the truth out there, making TDCJ look badso here they come. 

It’s ironic; I have been incarcerated for 22 years, and drugs and violence have always been here. It has progressively gotten worse, but TDCJ has always just turned a blind eye. What’s changed is that now, we have better ways of getting the truth out there and making the public aware, making TDCJ look badso here they come. 

During lockdowns, we suffer through being held in our cells 24 hours a day, adding to widespread mental health challenges. Guys in the same cell can’t get away from each other at all, and right now those who do not use drugs are upset because they feel they’re being punished for the actions of those who do. Tensions rise and violence ensues—the very violence TDCJ claims to be addressing by implementing a lockdown in the first place. 

Mark Wright,* a fellow TDCJ prisoner, told Filter that “most but not all inmates are killed by their cellmates for one reason or another. When you coop two men or women up in an 8’x10’ box, you get on each other’s nerves and tempers [flare]… with a no-movement lockdown like this … you’re stuck in a cell 24/7 with someone you was already having problems with.” 

Indeed, at least two people in the system were killed during the statewide lockdown, with one killed by his cellmate

How are most drugs arriving in Texas prisons? Simple: the staff. But because they’ll never admit that, prisoners are punished. 

The fact that TDCJ’s attempt to solve a problem ends up having the opposite effect isn’t surprising. After all, previous steps TDCJ has taken to “address” the drug market haven’t worked either. 

Our mail is now fully digitized, and our visitors are searched to the point that many feel too violated to come in. So how are most drugs arriving in Texas prisons? Simple: the staff. But because they’ll never admit that, prisoners are punished. 

Some years ago, I witnessed an officer being questioned by one of his bosses about why he was bringing tobacco into the unit (something that’s not illegal, just against TDCJ rules).

He laughed and said, “My question is, why isn’t everyone? I make my monthly check, from which they take out taxes, fine. But by bringing this in, I make double that each week in cash—no taxes to bring this in. So in a month’s time, I get my taxed paycheck and equal to eight untaxed checks for doing this. I just put it in savings. So I’m fired? Ok, I’ve been doing this for three years now. I’m gonna be good for a while.”

The reason officers can be so cavalier about bringing in drugs and other items is that TDCJ is scared of losing staff. The department readily admits to this: Its most recent budget appropriations request to the Texas legislature states that “Correctional officer staffing is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’smost significant operational issue.” 

“Because they are afraid to lose staff, the agency up until now did not search officers’ vehicles upon arrival or departure.”

Low pay rates help explain this. Finding enough staff has been a problem for TDCJ for years, but it got a lot worse once COVID hit, and the department never recovered. As Shadow, another prisoner here, told Filter, “because they are afraid to lose staff, the agency up until now did not search officers’ vehicles upon arrival or departure [for] each shift daily. They were only periodically sniffed by dogs, and are only pat-searched entering [after] each time they go to the parking lot.”

TDCJ knows how drugs are getting in, but is unwilling to take steps that might reduce the flow. When so many staff make money from drugs, removing their side incomes would prompt departures in addition to having to fire anyone caught, exacerbating TDCJ’s grave staffing crisis. 

Putting the blame on prisoners not only deflects from staff culpability, but carries other benefits: Staff say our unit gets money for disciplinary cases, plus extra funding for the “dangerous environment” ostensibly reflected by the presence of contraband.

Selling drugs makes good money because many people in here want to use as a means to get away. The system is set up to berate and belittle you. You are always talked down to and cussed out. It gets bad. For many who have trouble coping, they use drugs, which are expensive but rampantly available.

Paper soaked in K2 comes in a variety of different sizes, ranging from a letter-size sheet of paper ($300-$600) to a piece the size of a driver’s license photo ($50-$100). Meth or “ice” is $75-$125 for an amount the size of a ChapStick cap. I heard of some guys paying $600 for a 4-ounce bottle of K2, pouring it on 50 sheets of paper in a Ziploc bag, selling the sheets for $300 each and making a $14,400 profit. 

Such profits aren’t limited to drugs. “Phones are going for about 3k apiece and that’s not top-of-the-line stuff,” Wright said. “It is prepaids from Walmart or the dollar store that cost $30 to $40. Now, you take an officer that makes 30k a year and he goes to Walmart or Dollar General and spends $300-$400 on 10 phones and brings them into the unit. So he could bring in two or three a day and potentially earn a year’s salary in four days. Some incentive, huh?” 

Considering the prevalence of drugs in the system and the incentives officers have to sell them, folks in here don’t buy the premise of the lockdown. “I think they are trying to appease the public and make themselves ‘look good,’” Matthew King told Filter.

How else do you explain the ever-updating tally of “contraband found systemwide” on TDCJ’s website? Even officers are skeptical of TDCJ’s promise to “work to eradicate drugs.” Some of them, King added, “say they don’t believe it’s possible.”

“Demand will increase due to the fact that the ones that were holding had to either use what they had, or get rid of it by trashing or flushing it before they were shook down.”

Shadow, King and Wright, who all live on a wing where abstinence is expected, with many residents recovering from addiction, also expressed numerous frustrations about the lockdown, largely stemming from their lack of involvement in the drug market. 

Shadow said it made him feel “diminished in that all I do by following rules, being responsible, rehabilitating myself; being a positive role model equates to nothing because I am judged and punished by the actions of those who [sell or use drugs].” King and Wright both expressed anger, with Wright mentioning that “after a while you get tired of just a few people causing repercussions for everyone.”

These repercussions include changes to the drug market. “While we are on lockdown the supply will slow down, not stop,” Wright said, “‘cause some idiot will try to keep bringing the shit in, ‘cause in those people’s eyes the money is too good. And that is the driving force behind all of it.” 

“In actuality [the temporary scarcity] might make the market stronger for a while,” Wright continued. “Demand will increase due to the fact that the ones that were holding had to either use what they had, or get rid of it by trashing or flushing it before they were shook down and caught with it.” 

While none of us inside believe that a lockdown will eradicate the drug market, we know that the temporary disruption is likely to have harmful consequences. Besides increasing tensions and violence, TDCJ’s lockdown potentially also contributed to riskier patterns of drug use, when people couldn’t access their normal supply, or the buddies who normally look out for them when they use. Additionally, it made it more likely for prisoners’ medical needs to be ignored. 

If people can’t get their normal shit, they turn to pretty much anything, with replacement options often riskier.

With drugs temporarily scarcer and demand likely higher—some people will be going through withdrawal, others will just need an escape from the oppressive conditions of the lockdown—those who sell drugs will capitalize by charging more. 

Shadow agreed that the market “will get more costly and harmful,” both because people with lowered tolerances will be more likely to overdose and because drug shortages and enhanced surveillance will lead to riskier use. 

That’s how drug busts kill, outside of prison as well as inside. King said that “this lockdown will cause many to use quickly what they have so as to 1) not get caught with it and 2) not let it go to [waste]!” Rushed use is a known risk factor for overdose—all the more so in circumstances where people have, out of necessity, bought enough to last a while, or to share or sell.

Additionally, if people can’t get their normal shit, they turn to pretty much anything, with replacement options often riskier. It’s a phenomenon seen repeatedly in the outside worldfrom the Adderall shortage to people’s transition in the early 2010s from pharma opioids to heroin

In here, I’ve seen guys spray oven cleaner on paper, roll it up and smoke it. I’ve heard of people using barbershop solution, stainless steel cleaner (petroleum-based), certain epoxies (adhesives and plastics), lacquer thinners and acetones, even bug repellent with DEET. It’s a very ugly situation and some never recover. 

Punishing people, pushing them toward more dangerous alternatives and riskier use patterns, is the opposite of safety. 

Finally, people have died, and will die, because medical has become callous about people’s emergency calls. They automatically assume they’re drug-related, they do not care about drug-related emergencies, and that will only intensify. 

“Men with serious medical problems that need help are ignored when reported to officers or callously treated as a drug episode and response is slow,” Shadow said.  

If people want to use drugs, they will always find a way. TDCJ director Brian Collier claims that “[the department’s] interest is trying to make our prisons safe.” But punishing people, locking them up with no end in sight and pushing them toward more dangerous alternatives and riskier use patterns, is the opposite of safety. 

If TDCJ really wanted to get people to stop using drugs in prison, they’d address the major reason people are doing so in the first place, which is that they’re locked up and are trying to escape their current reality. Decarceration and abolition are harm reduction, because we know that there will never be such a thing as safe supply or safe use in prisons. 


This article was co-authored by T.S. Ganapathy, a drug policy researcher and prison abolitionist. They are using a pseudonym to be able to mail their work to their loved ones inside prisons without facing repercussions. 


*Names of all incarcerated sources have been changed for their protection.

Photograph by Matthias Müller via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

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