Heroin is news right now, and for lots of first-time users -- often switching over from more expensive painkiller habits -- the price is right. Here in federal prison I'm surrounded by some of the casualties of this not-so-new heroin wave, so I thought I'd get one typical perspective.
I sat down with Matthew, a 24-year-old white boy from the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. He's a slight young man, quiet but determined. To look at, you could believe he was still in high school. He tells me that his parents were raised in a trailer park but worked hard so that he wouldn't be. He's been locked up for the past three years, convicted of possession of heroin with intent to distribute.
"I was just out of high school and I had never done heroin," Matthew tells me. "But there was all this powdered heroin going around high schools and the younger crowd, and it was cheap. They called it 'cheese.'"
Like a lot of people, Matthew began experimenting socially, trying to be a part of the in-crowd. "I started out snorting," he says. "Most people start snorting. At all the parties, everyone is looking for some cheese."
Still, heroin costs money, so if you don't have it, you better start dealing if you want to maintain your buzz. "I started selling twenties, thirties, whatever," Matthew says. "Mainly to friends and people at my high school. Just some small-time dealing. It's $100 a gram for tar but I could get a ball [an "eight ball," about 3.5 grams] for $180. I would buy it in tar and turn one gram into six grams of powder."
Problem solved? "One day I was sitting there -- with five or six grams of tar, money and a bunch of friends around me -- and I thought that was what I wanted," says Matthew. "Except I still wasn't happy. I wanted to get higher. I went out and bought some rigs."
All of this had happened fast: "I went from snorting to shooting in like six months. I never thought I'd be using a needle. People started off looking for powder and before you know it, you're going to upgrade." Once he started mainlining, his habit grew worse. "I would bang whatever," he says. "I would shoot any drugs I could get my hands on."
By now, selling heroin was how Matthew made his living. He was still living with his parents but mainly hung out at party houses with friends, plying his trade. His family and some of his old high school friends were concerned about his lifestyle, but Matthew liked the attention. Plus, he was in a heroin daze.
It ended when he made some sales to an undercover agent who infiltrated his circle of friends. The DEA was targeting dealers selling to high school students -- including those, like Matthew, who were barely out of high school themselves. He'd been using and selling for little more than two years.
Being arrested was a big shock. You never think you're going to get caught, and when you're looking at hard time, it's not pretty. But Matthew's family wasn't surprised. He says they were actually relieved that he would have a chance to maybe get off heroin. To any parents, having their son in prison is better than having him dead from an overdose.
Matthew went through withdrawals in the county jail. Perhaps surprisingly, trapped in the modern industrial-prison clusterfuck, he was able to abstain from heroin -- even though it's widely available here. He went through the Bureau of Prisons' Residential Drug Abuse Program and finds that the temptation to use in prison just isn't that great.
"It's too expensive," he explains. "It's a debt. Too many dudes getting smashed for not paying their bills. I didn't want that to be me." He admits, "I know I have a problem, but I also know how it is here. Why would I get my time fucked up? I drank and smoked [marijuana] in here, but no heroin. It's not worth it."
Matthew is about to go home. In Dallas, heroin is apparently even more prevalent now than when he came in. "I know it's going to be hard. I know it's going to be around," he says. "But it's not the life I want to live. I have to figure out what to do."
Although he doesn't want to use again, he knows there's a high chance he will. "I feel my chances are medium to go back out there and stay clean," he says. "I'm going to surround myself with different people. I cut off a lot of my old friends. I got a girl but she uses, gets clean, uses again -- I'm not sure if I should even be around her."
"Everyone is expecting me to come out with this mentality of when I first got locked up: I was sending out letters, telling everyone who the snitches were on my case. But maybe it's a good thing I came to prison. It made me realize that heroin isn't a good life outlook. It's probably the best thing that could have happened to me."
But you get a sense of just what Matthew is up against from what he says next: "You got me fucked up just talking about it. It's scary. I want to shoot up right now."
This post was written by "Christopher Hoss" -- a pseudonym for a writer who is currently in federal prison for drug trafficking. Read the full version of this article at Substance.com.