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.