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Don’t be a lick

Do you know what a “lick” is? Not the generic definition. This has nothing to do with the tongue or fire or even defeating something. I’m talking slang here.

For those of you who have never tasted the misery of being enslaved by a chemical, a lick is what a drug dealer calls his customer. The guy who pawns his mother’s lawnmower for crack money is someone’s lick. So is the woman who sells her body for a 20 rock, or a shot of ice, or a Roxy 30. A drug dealer may pretend to like you, he may act oblivious to your rumpled clothing and declining weight, he may even chill with you for a while after money and merchandise are exchanged. But make no mistake, inwardly he’s smirking at your weakness. Regardless of the illusion of equal footing, this is not some business transaction. You are sick and desperate for what he has in his pocket, and he has all the power. You’re his sucker, his chump, his lick. Pointblank. He’s buying clothes and cars and bling while your life is crumbling all around you.

It’s humiliating to admit this, but I’ve been a lick for most of my life. As of this writing, I’m not even halfway through a 379-month prison sentence for robbing gas stations. Not because I was starving or because there was a recession and I was desperate to feed my family. No. I wish, but no. I was just a lick trying to scrape up money to bring to my dopeman. So you get it, right? Drugs are bad. I know what you’re thinking. “Thank you very much, Diane Sawyer, but this is not breaking news.” There are millions upon millions of stories out there about the soul-sucking consequences of drug abuse.

But this is not an anti-drug rant. This is an anti-lick rant. At the risk of sounding like the illegitimate child of Tipper Gore and Joe McCarthy, I’ll attempt to explain.

The predatory paradigm of dopeman and lick is not restricted to drug culture. It’s everywhere. Millionaire rappers laugh all the way to the bank while the kids who mindlessly, hypnotically repeat their lyrics get shot down in the streets, or come to prison with life sentences for trying to live out these murderous, unsustainable fairy tales that are being spoon-fed to them under the label of “cool.” Metal bands romanticize suicides and overdoses as if they were heroic acts. Violent video games, sexting, internet porn… it makes sense that kids are the biggest licks because they are the most inexperienced and therefore vulnerable. But it’s not just kids. Big Pharma is a billion-dollar industry. Middle Eastern turf wars are reported as ideological clashes but are really all about oil and who gets to sell it to us. Think we’re not China’s licks? Check out the “Made in” sticker on the back of any product sold at the local Super Walmart. Everybody wants a piece.

The Eagles have a terrific lyric in the song Already Gone: “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” In this case, the key is awareness, knowledge, moderation. Don’t be a lick.

[Originally published on malcolmivey.com in November 2014.]

Video visitation: it’s coming

Visitation was packed. The line to get in barely moved. Tired moms chased screaming kids across the parking lot. Angry girlfriends, denied entry for wearing spandex and sleeveless shirts, stormed off in profanity-laced tirades. A grandfather passed out from heat exhaustion. After a two-hour wait, it was finally my mom’s turn to be frisked, then led through a gauntlet of metal detectors, cell phone detectors, and drug dogs. The guard who escorted her rolled her eyes and smiled, “Come on, video visits!” As if my sweet, 70-year-old mother, who has spent every Saturday for the last 12 years eating microwave food, walking laps, and playing cards with her wayward, knuckle-headed son would share this longing for dystopian efficiency over human contact. She does not. No prisoner or visitor wants this.

It’s coming, though. Not only because these contact visits — which have been standard operating procedure in the Florida Department of Corrections for the last 150 years — are now suddenly deemed a “security threat,” but mainly because there’s a market for it. Companies like Keefe and Access Correctional stand to make millions when video visits become the new normal in Florida prisons.

Most county jails have already made the transition with little or no resistance, but there’s a glaring difference: County inmates are either awaiting trial or serving minuscule sentences. Prisoners in the department of corrections are serving anywhere between a year and natural life. Imagine never being able to hold your daughter again, or give your little boy a piggyback ride, or kiss your wife, or hug your mom. You can argue that the prisoner deserves this. But do his children? His wife? His parents? Families serve sentences together. These types of policies have collateral consequences that extend far beyond the inmate.

John Cacioppo, PhD, a psychologist and social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago studies loneliness and he’s found that feeling socially isolated disrupts not only our brain but also our endocrine and immune systems. Over the long term, lack of human contact can be as damaging to our health and well-being as obesity and smoking (Men’s Health, Jan/Feb 2015).

In this era of Skype and Facetime, my words probably ring trivial. Old fashioned, even. Especially to the millennial who maintains several relationships over a mobile device. That’s not my world. There was no such thing as a smart phone when I was arrested. Many of my fellow prisoners were locked up before the advent of the internet.

Again, who cares? Outside of prisoners and their families, no one. And let’s be honest, the average inmate’s family is not exactly affluent, connected, or politically powerful. The Florida Department of Corrections knows this and passes its draconian rules with little resistance, as I’m sure they’ll do with this one.

To mangle a Leonard Pitts quote: Things like this will continue until the families of prisoners understand themselves as a constituency and organize their voices accordingly.

A nation in reverse

By now I’m sure you’ve heard the numbers — the U.S. makes up only 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of the world’s prisoners are locked up right here in the land of the free. One in three Americans has some type of criminal record, be it felony or misdemeanor. Our national embarrassment of mass incarceration and the commodification of human beings is alive and well in 2017.

The sad thing is, we were this close. You can’t see my fingers but… This. Close. There was bipartisan support for criminal justice reform at every level of government. “Non-violent drug offenders” had become a Beltway catchphrase. President Obama was commuting an historic amount of federal prison sentences. The most hard-line conservative seat on the Supreme Court had come open and Hillary Clinton, wife of Bill, with every reason in the world to undo what many view as the last bastion of slavery, was a stone-cold-lead-pipe lock for the Oval Office. What could possibly go wrong?

Blame it on Russian meddling, rust-belt angst, ex-FBI director Comey’s 11th-hour email investigation announcement, or a lack of voter turn-out because Dems thought they had it in the bag. For whatever reason, here we sit. A nation in reverse.

Never mind prison reform. The environment is under siege, Medicaid is under siege, Wall Street is on the verge of running rampant again after the quiet dismantling of Dodd-Frank (a piece of legislation put into place to ensure that the financial crisis of 2008 — an event that cost the world 40 percent of its wealth — would never happen again). Our president is disrespecting long-standing allies while complimenting dictators. The Montenegro shove, the Paris climate pull-out, the Mueller investigation, the Emoluments Clause lawsuits, North Korea, Syria, and tweet after mind-numbing, illiterate tweet. It’s exhausting and riveting and terrifying and hilarious.

Meanwhile, as these pyrotechnics dominate the news cycle, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has doubled down on an outdated War on Drugs policy, urging federal prosecutors to seek the maximum sentences on drug offenders. He’s even asked Congressional leaders to allow the Justice Department to prosecute medical marijuana providers. Stock in private prison profiteers like the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America — down 40 percent in the last six months of Obama’s term due to a planned phase-out in the federal system — is once again soaring. Business is good. And with the resurgence of heroin, it’s only going to get better.

Rumors of the demise of the Prison Industrial Complex have been greatly exaggerated.

2017’s must-see games

I get it. Your life is crowded. Between romance and responsibilities, recitals and referendums, revenue and rent, there are not enough hours in the day. Especially not for the distractive force of a 17-week NFL slate consisting of 256 regular season games. Lucky for you, Uncle Malcolm has no life outside of writing books and watching football. Below is a list of weekly must-see games and storylines from the 2017 schedule that will keep you pigskin fluent at both the water cooler and the watering hole…

Week 1 – 9/11 NO @ Min – Adrian Peterson returns to face his old team and their vaunted defense in the stadium hosting this year’s Super Bowl. Reality TV at its finest.
Week 2 – 9/17 GB @ ATL – ARod & Company were run out of the building in last year’s NFC title game beatdown. But this is a new building, ATL’s home opener in their shiny new stadium.
Week 3 – 9/24 NYG @ PHI – Perennial bad blood division game. I know you’ve seen the movie Invincible with Mark Wahlberg. Old Bears WR duo Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery now on opposing sidelines.
Week 4 – 10/1 NO @ MIA (London) – An early measuring stick game for my beloved fish. If you want to know if your defense is any good, Drew Brees can help you find out quickly.
Week 5 – 10/8 BAL @ OAK – Love these West Coast matinee games. If you’re a gambler, take the over. Guaranteed shoot-out.
Week 6 – 10/15 PIT @ KC – Revenge factor: KC fired PIT’s OC Todd Haley a few years back. Big Ben seems to relish making them pay (see last year’s blow-out). But this one is in Arrowhead. Tough crowd.
Week 7 – 10/22 ATL @ NE – Remember last year’s Super Bowl? Nuff said.
Week 8 – 10/29 HOU @ SEA – If you’re into pitchers duels, circle your calendar. Two of the league’s most physical defenses battle it out.
Week 9 – 11/5 OAK @ MIA – The second in a trilogy of consecutive prime time Miami games. I can’t remember the last time the Dolphins played on Sunday night. This one could exceed 1,000 yards of offense.
Week 10 – 11/12 NE @ DEN – One of the best rivalries in recent memory. But whether it’s an instant classic or a blow-out depends on Denver’s QB situation.
Week 11 – 11/20 ATL @ SEA – Refs botched last year’s regular season game, ATL got revenge when it counted. Looking forward to Julio Jones vs. Richard Sherman Part III.
Week 12 – 11/26 GB @ PIT – Two of the best QBs of this era square off in prime time. This one has “last possession” written all over it.
Week 13 – 11/30 WAS @ DAL – A rematch of last year’s Thanksgiving Day track meet. Who will win the NFC East? Probably a 4-team photo finish.
Week 14 – 12/11 NE @ MIA (Note: ALL Dolphins games are must-see TV to me) – Can the Fish whup AFC East bullies and Super Bowl champs on Monday night? I hope this is for the division title.
Week 15 – 12/17 NE @ PIT – Has Big Ben ever beaten Tom Brady? Doesn’t seem like it. Home field advantage in the playoffs will be on the line here.
Week 16 – 12/24 SEA @ DAL – Unstoppable force vs. immovable object? Two things are for sure: On this Christmas Eve match-up, Dallas will be #1 rushing and Seattle will be #1 vs. the run.
Week 17 – 12/31 KC @ DEN – Swiss army knife Tyreek Hill had a coming out party during last year’s mile-high thriller. Denver’s defense should be less hospitable this time around. Especially with a division title at stake.

And there you have it, 2017’s must-see games, week by week. If I left your team off the list, it’s probably because they suck. But look on the bright side: We are all tied for #1 until the season starts. GO DOLPHINS!

In the tradition of Fyodor

Naked, shoulder-to-shoulder, and five at a time we stood in the bathroom, awaiting orders.

“Lift your top lip, bottom lip, tongue up, bend forward at the waist, run your fingers through your hair, stand up, lift your penis and penis only, penis and nutsack, turn around, bend over and spread ’em, cough twice, right foot, left foot, next five!”

We were then herded into the dayroom like cattle, 75 of us in all. I found a spot on the floor to wait out the storm. As soon as I sat down, the old man to my immediate left removed his dentures and began to blow the trapped food from between his false teeth.

“Honey, you is disgusting,” said the sissy to my right, while covering his “breasts.”

I had to smile. In spite of the nauseating heat, the persistent flies, the cacophony of smells and my aforementioned neighbors, a sort of calm gratitude washed over me. But the soothing voice in my head was more Dostoyevsky than Gandhi, more David Mitchell than Lao Tsu, more Donna Tartt than Siddhartha. The voice said, “Dude, this is definitely going in the next book.”

Prison is my internet. Here there are carnies, junkies, boosters, charlatans, doctors, athletes, psychics, preachers, bullies, dope cooks, gigolos, sociopaths, card sharps, gangsters, killers, coyotes, refugees… Any lifestyle I want to research is somewhere on the yard. Guaranteed. The same goes for experience: strip searches, beatings, gassings, riots, solitary confinement, naked fear, transcendent love, seething racism, unexpected kindness, stabbings, overdoses, undiagnosed mental illness, it’s all here. Every day. These are the stories I tell.

As the shakedown commenced in the living area, as bunks were tossed and lockers dumped, the momentary gratitude was swallowed by a familiar paranoia. I know that most of the men crammed in the dayroom with me were worried about their knives, naked flicks, dope, buck (homemade wine), altered radios, contraband bowls and gambling paraphernalia. My mind was somewhere else. I was sweating my manuscript.

Like Ezra James, the protagonist in my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, I’ve lost my share of pages in shakedowns. Precious sentences and paragraphs gone forever, drenched in tobacco spit, ripped to pieces, swept from the dorm in a pile of soiled linen and rotten fruit. Crushing.

I wonder if other incarcerated writers went through this. Did Cervantes have to stash his draft of Don Quixote when the guards made their rounds? Surely Dostoyevsky had some close calls during his years in Siberia. Oscar Wilde, Henry David Thoreau, E. E. Cummings. Not to throw my hat in the ring with these masters of the craft, but I can at least say I write in their tradition. If confinement can be considered a tradition. (Condition?)

As for the manuscript, when I returned to my bunk, post-shakedown, I was relieved to find it under my mat. A little bent up and crumpled but still in tact. It’s called Sticks and Stones, available this fall on Amazon.

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Same as it never was

A couple of months ago, shackled and numb from a three-hour ride in a mobile sardine can, I watched through the steel mesh window as the first gun tower of my new prison appeared above the treeline.

And by “new” I mean “next,” my seventh institution in the last 12 years. There’s nothing new about this place. It’s at least 40 years old, maybe older. It’s not even new to me. Two decades ago, a skinny, gullible, wide-eyed 21-year-old version of myself arrived at this same prison.

Memories came flooding back as I hefted my property and shuffled off the bus into the light of day. Aside from a few fresh rolls of razor wire and different guards with the same scowls, everything was just as I left it, frozen in a perpetual state of 1994.

I looked toward the visitation park where Mom used to visit each weekend, ever faithful, ever believing, ever seeing the best in her son. She was in her 40s back then. She’s 70 now. Still faithful, still believing, still seeing the best in me. I have a lot to be grateful for.

Over the gray-wash shingles of the chapel that I helped to build, I could see the confinement unit looming. Somewhere in time, my younger self was still pacing those cells, nursing swollen black eyes and busted lips from fighting off wolves. Prison has extra challenges for young, skinny, blue-eyed white boys.

Beyond the confinement unit sprawled the rec yard where, once upon a nightmare, I sat cross-legged in the softball outfield, acoustic guitar in my lap, shielding my arm from the gun tower while an older convict shot me up with cocaine. Before my arrival in prison, I had only smoked pot and tripped acid.

The chow hall where I saw my first rat, the dormitory where I witnessed my first stabbing, the bunk where I got my first tattoo… These landmarks spread across the panorama like monuments to a darker, more confusing time. Though smaller and shabbier than the imposing dungeon of my memory, the prison is relatively unchanged. The only thing that’s changed is me.

I’m almost a quarter-century removed from the naive and inexperienced kid who once roamed this compound seeking himself in the opinions and acceptance of others. That dark-haired, fresh-faced, 125-pound boy is now a bald, bearded, 200-pound man. I no longer confuse manhood with brutality and judge myself to be lacking. I treasure my loved ones instead of taking them for granted. I understand that fear is just a voice in my head. Discipline and a hunger for self-mastery have taken the place of addiction and impulsiveness. Then there’s the books…

T.S. Eliot once famously observed that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I’m not sure if I know the place any better, but I know myself and, in the words of another famous poet, “that has made all the difference.”

Finding peace without hope

A few years ago, I used to walk the track while pondering the cosmos with my homeboy JG at a private prison in the Florida Panhandle by the shady name of Blackwater (no relation to the infamous private-sector security firm that dominated the headlines in Green Zone Baghdad during the second Iraq war).

Although he was 15 years younger than I was, JG and I had a lot in common — same hometown, same circle of friends, both audiophiles, both sports fans, both committed to self-mastery and a life free from the enslavement of addiction. We were also both doing a substantial amount of time: him, 10 years; me, 30. But for all the things we had in common, there was a fundamental rift in our philosophies regarding the prison sentences we were serving and how we approached them.

JG is a Christian who is also well versed in The Secret, The Prosperity Bible and other new-thought, mind-over-matter, mustard-seed doctrine. His guiding principle is Biblical, Matthew 21:21-22 which, to paraphrase, says “Prayer and faith without doubt can wither fig trees and move mountains.”

While I don’t subscribe to any religion, I lean Eastern, spiritually, and call myself Buddhish. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha has had a profound impact on my life. I’ve read Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul three times and We’re All Doing Time by Bo Lozoff has been a constant companion and manual to me for over a quarter-century in the chain gang. My guiding principle is straight out of The Four Noble Truths: Desire is the root of suffering and contentment is the way out.

Day after day, lap after lap, we debated our philosophies and invariably arrived at the same dead end. In a nutshell, JG believed that through prayer, visualization, and faith he could will his way out of prison long before his distant release date. I believed that through meditation, gratitude, and acceptance, freedom could be attained right here, right now, regardless of my release date.

We hit a stalemate. He thought it was cowardly of me to accept my conditions without a fight. I thought he was naive to believe in the impossible. In the end we had to agree to disagree. I was in my tenth year of incarceration at the time and he was on only his second. Sooner or later he would come to the realization that hope hurts and learn to find peace in the present moment without clinging or resisting.

Fast forward two and a half years. We had both been transferred to different prisons and I was so immersed in writing the final scenes of On the Shoulders of Giants that the only time I departed the story world of Izzy and Pharaoh was to eat, sleep, and shower. So I was shocked when I called home one day and my mom told me that JG had won his appeal. It was all over Facebook.

That night as I lay in my bunk, I thought about JG and Blackwater and all those afternoons spent walking the track and debating the power of faith vs. the freedom in acceptance. Guess he won that argument.

But since then I’ve been wondering, have I robbed myself of miracles by failing to expect them? Would I be home right now if I hadn’t tapped out and surrendered to my circumstances? Are desire and contentment really mutually exclusive? Maybe there is a Tao between these two polarities, a middle road that allows for both ambition and inner peace.

I won’t say that JG’s release caused a radical shift in my belief system, but it did inspire me to open my mind, adjust my philosophy, and leave a little room for hope… at least a mustard seed’s worth.

A voice in the gun debate

First posted on http://www.malcolmivey.com in August 2016.
I’m not positive when it happened, somewhere between Virginia Tech and Fort Hood. But by the time the little 9-year-old girl in Chicago was murdered in a drive-by while waiting on her school bus, the feeling was unavoidable. Irrepressible. Then came Gabby Giffords, then Sandy Hook Elementary, then Aurora, Colorado. I cringed with every tragic breaking news story, right along with the rest of America. But unlike the rest of America, my disgust was not reserved strictly for the shooters. Some of it I saved for myself.

Full disclosure: I’m a gun criminal. There’s no explaining this away with a bunch of pretty words. NFL Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells once said: “You are what your record says you are” and my record says I am an armed career criminal. That’s how the Federal government classified me over 11 years ago when I began this 30-year sentence. And these men, these murderers, these ruthless takers of innocent life are gun criminals, just like me. For the rest of my years on this planet, at least in the eyes of the system, I will be lumped into this category of cowards.

Now my mom will argue this to her grave, and I have nieces and nephews who have no idea about my armed career criminal title. The only title they know me by is Uncle Chris. Maybe at some point in the future, I’ll write an in-depth character defense for the unconscious, addicted young man who racked up all these ugly charges and explain in detail how I’ve never physically hurt anyone, never even fired a gun. But in the opinion of the U.S. government and for the purposes of this post, I am an armed career criminal. Considering this label, coupled with the fact that I have no problem sounding off about every other issue known to man, my silence in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre and the murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge feels craven. So for whatever it’s worth, here’s how one gun criminal feels about guns and gun crime.

We are living in an era of first-person-shooter video games and a rap culture whose biggest stars glorify murder and gun violence. America’s children are being brainwashed. Their senses are under siege, many of them without the benefit of vigilant and engaged parents to at least offset this deluge of violent information. The result is usually a footnote on the evening news: carjackings, home invasions, drug deals gone bad. For every Newtown, Charleston, and Dallas, there are thousands of less publicized shootings every day.

These are troubled times. People should be able to protect their home and family. That being said, a street sweeper is a little excessive. A handgun seems like ample protection until the police arrive. Automatic rifles — or “choppers” as they are lovingly referred to by rappers like Rick Ross — are nothing less than weapons of urban warfare. Have you ever heard of any hunter mowing down deer with an AK-47?

I don’t think this is what the Founding Fathers intended. The Second Amendment was written as a protection against tyranny. This is pretty clear. But when Jefferson wrote “The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is a last resort to protect themselves against tyranny in government,” I doubt he envisioned that government having fighter jets, tomahawk missiles, and nuclear warheads. A well-regulated militia? Please. Not in 2016. You’ll be the new occupant of the empty bunk across the aisle from me, on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government.

I know there are certain voices clamoring for all firearms to be banned and others who think the status quo is just fine. The logical course of action is probably the middle road, somewhere between these two extremes. It’s interesting that human evolution is being outpaced by technology, even lapped by it. For all our stem cell research, Mars probes, and advancements in artificial intelligence, we are still a small, covetous race that wars over religion, murders over tennis shoes, and uses skin color as a basis for hate.

Maybe the answer lies not so much in banning firearms, but in molding future generations too humane to use them.

Divine intervention

I think I had been up for four days when I robbed the second gas station. But it could have been five days or even six. I don’t know. Days run together when they’re not separated by sleep. Armed robbery was a new low, even for me, but then so was crack cocaine. In the six months following my first hit from a crack pipe, I’d lost everything — my car, my job, my girl, my family. I couldn’t stand the weak thing I had become and by then, I was ready to die. My plan was simple: rob and get high until the police got behind me, then blow my brains out.

Although cocaine is not classified as a hallucinogenic, sleep deprivation most definitely is. And as I was exiting that gas station, I was seeing and hearing all sorts of things – police search lights, sirens, footsteps, voices… I hopped into a stolen car and sped away, zigzagging my way through neighborhood streets and charting a course for the nearest dope hole.

As I pulled out onto the main thoroughfare, two things happened that would change my life forever: 1) My headlights stopped working, and 2) a cop was driving by. I checked the rearview to see if he was going to turn around. Of course he was. It was 3 a.m. and I was driving with no headlights in an area where a robbery had just occurred. When he turned on his siren, I stomped on the gas and yanked hard on the steering wheel…

…and drove straight into a brick mailbox. I bailed out of the car and ran through someone’s yard, tires screeching behind me. Desperate to escape, I sprinted toward the field abutting the backyard but never saw the fence. It was one of those waist-high, rusty barbed wire things and it flipped me upside down. I felt the gun fall from the pocket of my hoodie into the tall grass below. I quickly freed myself, then frantically groped for it in the dark. I couldn’t lose the gun. I needed it to off myself when there was nowhere left to run. But I heard squawking radios and jingling keys approaching. I had to go.

Branches and thorns slapped my face as I tore through the field. I tripped, lost a shoe, tripped again, and finally rolled into a gully and pulled the brush over myself to hide. An hour passed. Helicopters flew overhead, far off voices shouted, car engines roared. Then the low growl and panting breath of a dog drew close. I could hear it a few feet away, tracking me. Suddenly, the massive head of a German Shepherd poked through the brush. I threw my arms up to keep him from biting my face. He seized my wrist and began ripping flesh from bone. I was quickly surrounded by police and pummeled with flashlights and boots.

But something strange happened in that field. Maybe it was just the dope or the sleep deprivation. Maybe I was in shock, but for a moment, I was hovering over my body, looking down at the scene below. This pitiful crackhead that was me — emaciated, dirty, bloody — being mauled and stomped and finally handcuffed.

If I’d had that gun while I lay there in the bushes with the police closing in, I would have killed myself. There would be no Consider the Dragonfly, no With Arms Unbound, no On the Shoulders of Giants, and you definitely wouldn’t be reading this post right now. I’d be just a forgotten news story from the last decade, a dead crackhead in a field. Forgotten, except to my mom and she would have found a way to blame herself. Instead, it is my belief that something bigger intervened and that has made all the difference. If Malcolm Ivey has a birthday, it’s March 22, 2005, the night I dropped the gun.

The truth about spice

I awoke to a shrill and piercing wail, half panicked, half orgasmic. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

I sat up in my bunk and glanced at my watch. It was 5 a.m. The commotion was in the back corner of the dorm. A crowd of inmates was gathered around a young black man whose body was locked in a half-crouch, knees slightly bent, fists clenched, as if he were about to ski the K-12. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

One of the bystanders urged him to snap out of it. Someone forced their way through the crowd and dashed him in the face with a cup of water. When that didn’t work, he was slapped. His distress only increased. The guard frowned through the Plexiglas window of the booth.

Sleep faded and recognition dawned as I watched it all unfold. He wasn’t being attacked or having a meltdown. He was only gooking. No, gooking is not the gerund form of a dated slur, it’s the umbrella term that covers a myriad of strange behavior that goes hand in hand with the drug spice.

If someone is crawling around on the floor, flopping like a fish, mumbling incoherently, seizing, vomiting, or locked up screaming “Oh my God!” over and over, chances are they’re gooking out on spice.

I consider myself a chemical connoisseur. I’ve never met a drug I didn’t like. I started out pinching weed from my dad’s stash, then moved on to blotter acid by the eighth grade. Crack, ecstasy, pills… I doted on each with unconditional love. And whether on this or that side of the razor wire made no difference. I shot cocaine for the first time at age 21 on a prison rec yard with an acoustic guitar in my lap to shield both needle and arm from the gun tower. The first time I snorted heroin was in a prison bathroom. My love affair with dope is well documented. I love it so much that I’m doing 30 years in prison for it.

That being said, spice scares the hell out of me. Ever since it burst on the scene, I’ve watched my fellow inmates have their nervous system attacked, their kidneys fail, their brain function diminish. I’ve watched them hyperventilate and drool and faceplant into the concrete. A potent batch of that shit will have the ambulance in and out of here all day.

But that’s not even the scariest part. The most concerning consequence of the spice epidemic from where I sit is the deadening of hearts. I’m no neuroscientist but I’d be willing to bet that spice suffocates whatever chemical in the brain is responsible for empathy. In a place where kindness and humanity are already scarce to begin with, the last thing we need is a substance to snuff out what little light remains. But spice isn’t just a prison problem, its popularity is exploding everywhere because it doesn’t show up on standard track urinalyses. I’ve just been able to study its disastrous effects day after day in the condensed ecosystem of my prison dorm.

Take it from a dope aficionado: This is no drug. This is a lethal, man-made, brain-eating chemical masquerading as a drug. Big difference.

You know those movies like I Am Legend and World War Z where a contagion creates a sub-human, zombified race that multiplies exponentially? They had it half right. Only the viral spore isn’t from some toxic waste spill or globetrotting bacteria. It’s Yellow Jacket, it’s Red Dragon, it’s the millennial chemical called spice. Smoke up.