Taking OxyContin morphed into smoking heroin morphed into injecting heroin. My recreational use had descended into hellish addiction—but somehow I partially kept my life together.[/series-sidebar]
I worked full time in the service industry and bought as much heroin as the tips I earned would allow, never turning to auxiliary crime to support my habit. I had dreamed of going to paramedic school and in preparation I got my EMT license and took a year’s worth of prerequisites at a community college. I thought that if I could create a life worth living, then and only then would I stop shooting up.
This semi-normal life, combined with my White skin and the fact that I lived in an under-policed suburban neighborhood, allowed me to evade criminal justice involvement for years.
All good things come to an end. I was arrested for the first time at age 23, still in my work uniform from the pizza place. Possession of heroin was a Class B felony in Oregon at the time. I knew that if I was found guilty, I would likely lose my EMT license and any chance of a future career in the medical field. I was pretty sure it would also ruin my financial aid and make it hard for me to find housing or jobs. A felony is forever. It was as if being addicted to heroin wasn’t miserable enough and the system making things more miserable would make me stop using.
Motivated by the fear of that felony, I opted for drug court. If I successfully completed it, the charge would be wiped from my record. So I went to detox and then a drug treatment program (thanks to still being covered by my mom’s health insurance). I also got lucky and found a Suboxone doctor who was accepting patients.
I was doing better—using only occasionally—until I was arrested by the sheriff’s office. A scrap of plastic they’d found in my mess of a car was swabbed and tested positive for heroin. It could have been in there for months. After I was taken into custody, they supposedly found less than a tenth of gram embedded in the seat upholstery.
That’s when I lost my resolve. I used heroin for several days and didn’t take my medication. But I was still in drug court and still had a deep desire to stop using. I believed the system was there to help me. I went to my Suboxone doctor and explained the situation, though I didn’t admit the extent of my relapse.
I devised a plan: At my check-in with the drug court judge later that day I was going to ask the judge to send me to jail so that I could be re-stabilized there.
My doctor wrote an eloquent letter for the courts imploring them to provide lifesaving Suboxone to me. Getting stabilized on the medication was the only way I was going to stay clean and avoid a felony conviction.
I had both my written prescription and my physical medication with me when I showed up to court. I’d done my hair and makeup, knowing that the booking mugshot would live forever online. In the courtroom, I sat through a dozen other check-ins, all people who were desperately trying to avoid a felony possession charge. The judge, nearing retirement, had white hair and kind eyes, and was known for his genuine compassion. I was one of the last to go. I stood up from the bench where I had been seated and walked up to the defendant’s table with the microphone. In that moment, preparing to ask for incarceration, I learned what courage felt like.
As soon as I reached the podium, I blurted out, “I need some custody. I need five days or something … I’m slipping, I need a fresh start.” I didn’t trust myself to wait through the pleasantries. The words had been uttered; there was no undoing them now.
The judge obliged my request and sentenced me to seven days in jail. The bailiff radioed for backup: “We have a custody in Judge Ryan’s court.” Soon, several of them were taking me by each arm and placing handcuffs on me. They grabbed my things—Suboxone and doctor’s letter included—and escorted me to booking.
My initial arrest had been a book-and-release. I had never actually been to jail before. I made sure the letter, prescription and medication were all logged with my property, and I asked the booking deputy to get those things to the medical staff. But he didn’t respond. He just stared at me blankly, blinked repeatedly and then looked away. Strange, I thought.
You never forget the first time you get “dressed down” into jail clothes. Four women stood in a row, separated by open stalls, before the deputy. “Remove all of your clothing. Face the wall, lift your right foot, wiggle your toes. Left foot, wiggle your toes …” But this wasn’t the hokey-pokey. “Bend over, spread your cheeks and cough.”
I at first assumed that medical care in jail was an extension of the type I had been receiving my whole life. When a tired-looking nurse coldly took my vitals, I didn’t take it personally. I just thought she’d had a long day. I then asked, “And when will I be given my Suboxone?”
“It is unlikely you’ll be given that medication,” she replied. “Put in a medical request form when you get to the housing unit.” It was not a conversation, and I was immediately put back into a holding cell.
Eventually I was shackled to a stranger and transported in the back of a police van to the jail itself. I was still hopeful, despite the warning from the nurse. After all, I had a prescription.
Once in the dorm I immediately put in a medical request form and explained the situation. I was in full-blown withdrawal the next day when they finally called my name. “Godvin! Medical!”
I walked through the double-locking doors into the hallway. A middle-aged deputy was standing there, her arms crossed. “Hands against the wall,” she barked. I shuffled over to the wall in my jail slippers and put my hands on the wall. She patted me down intimately, shaking out the band of my sports bra, running her thumb in between my boobs, snapping the waistband of my pants in the front and back, and cupping her hands down each of my legs, paying extra attention to my jail-issue tube socks.
She then silently escorted me to the holding tank for medical. I stepped into it and the door locked behind me. There was no clock, and I had no watch. You can’t bring a book, paper, a pen or anything that might keep you occupied. With my withdrawal getting worse, I was freezing but sweating profusely.
I waited for what seemed like forever. Finally, the door opened. An older woman with a grayish-blonde ponytail took my height, weight and vitals. Again, it almost felt like a normal trip to the doctor, so I spoke to her like I normally would to a doctor. “I need my Suboxone. I was booked with it, the prescription for it and the letter from my doctor. I am in full-blown withdrawal and need it urgently.”
The nurse asked me, “But why are you prescribed Suboxone?”
When I responded “opioid use disorder,” she scoffed. “We will not be continuing your medication.”
I know now from my medical records that she wrote, “Patient upset about not receiving Suboxone but understands,” in my chart. “Upset” is an understatement. What I “understood” was that they were willfully denying me access to evidence-based medicine.
And suffer I did. Withdrawal is agonizing. I begged them to read the letter from my doctor. I begged them for my medication as I writhed in pain. It was futile. It was against jail policy, which flies in the face of more than a decade’s worth of data proving Suboxone saves lives and reduces recidivism.
My illusion of this nation being a humane place—an illusion founded on my own racial and class privilege—shattered into a million pieces.
I became bitter. I felt betrayed by the system. I had requested jail time because I thought it could save me. I was wrong.
My withdrawal lasted the duration of my jail stay. I didn’t have enough energy to go to the water fountain I shared with other prisoners, so I was dehydrated. I also suffered insomnia made worse by the fluorescent lights that never turned off.
After my seven-day sentence, I was released back to the streets. There was no bed in inpatient treatment. I had not been stabilized on my medication.
My resolve to stop using was destroyed. Defeated, I sought solace in my old standby, heroin. Within 24 hours of my release I relapsed. I’m lucky I didn’t overdose that weekend, as so many others do after leaving jail.
I was back in jail within a month, then the month after that. I was eventually convicted of multiple felonies. I lost my job, and resigned myself to a life and death in heroin addiction.
Nine months after my first time in jail, I sold a gram of heroin out of my personal supply to one of my best friends. Later that night, alone in his bedroom, he overdosed and died. I was arrested again and sentenced to five years in prison for my role.
If the jail would have given me my Suboxone, maybe I would have stayed clean, or maybe I wouldn’t have. I cannot know. I just know that the jail had an opportunity to provide evidence-based care and they chose punishment instead. And I know what happened next.
Morgan Godvin is a freelance writer and public health student at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. She interns with the Health in Justice Action Lab.