Prison Stories

Big Pharma in Prison

Big Pharma in Prison by Robert Rosso

The first time that I heard of the pharmaceutical drug Gabapentin was back in June of 2000 while I was in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) and the United States Penitentiary (USP) in Leavenworth, Kansas. Following a drunk and unruly “group demonstration,” I was extracted from my cell, chocked to the point of unconsciousness, stripped naked and brought to an outdoor rec’ cage where I remained in that position until medical personal forced the correctional officers to untie me, some two hours later. Upon assessing my injuries, a physicians assistant (PA) recommend to the prison doctor that I be prescribed pain medication. Gabapentin is what they gave me.

An active drug user at the time, whose drug of choice was heroin, when I learned that Gabapentin was not an opioid that could neither get me high nor mask a drug-screen urinalysis (UA) in the event that I was dirty (If I was prescribed morphine or Tylenol 3, for example, either drug would test positive on a UA as Opiate/Morphine, as does heroin), I wasn’t interested in taking it. Therefore, later that evening when the nurse dropped off my prescription, I simply waited for her to leave then I flushed them down the commode.

Months went by and I was temporarily released into population only to return again three weeks, and all the while I never thought twice about Gabapentin. Then one night, out of the blue, the tray-slot on our cell-door dropped open and a nurse tossed me a bottle of pills, one-hundred-and-twenty 600-milligrams of Gabapentin to be exact. Noticing that the label on the bottle said “for pain use,” and that the side-effects included slurred speech and drossiness, my cell-mate Kenny decided that they must get you high and we should take some.

Initially, I was totally against it. I am not in the habit of taking pills that I knew nothing about, and all I knew about Gabapentin was that they were a new formulary drug being used throughout the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), and that the doctors were prescribing them as some sort of cure-all, a drug that helped those with chronic pain, headaches, depression and much, much more. But after Kenny took five of them, drank a cup of coffee and sat around a while, I noticed that he was visibly fucked up, looked like he was feeling great and I decided to give them a whirl. I was instantly hooked.

When I was released back into general population, I turned some of my friends on to Gabapentin so that they, too, could enjoy this “funky high,” one in which mimics the effects of a stimulant, an opiate or a hallucinogenic, depending on the amount of pills one consume, food intake, the amount of time that the drug is in a person system, and coffee – you gotta take them with coffee to “get there.” In no time, word spread around the prison like wildfire ” that those pills that medical is handing out for everything” can actually get you high. In about a 30 day period, a bottle of 600-milligram Gabapentin (120 pills) on the black market skyrocketed from $5 a bottle to $50 and they didn’t stop there. Furthermore, because the pharmacy was so relaxed about refilling prescriptions, I could refill my 30-day prescription twice a week.

But in truth, I actually knew nothing about the drug.

Gabapentin, I would later learn, is the generic-brand for Neurontin, an anti-seizure medication originally manufactured by Parke-Davis that came under much scrutiny after reports surfaced that company executives were engaging in “off-label marketing practices.” Specifically, the Food and Drug Administration approved Neurotin as a treatment for epileptic seizures only, however, in an effort to fatten company profits, Parke-Davis devised a systematic strategy to promote Neurontin for unapproved uses, uses such as chronic pain, general anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder and even hiccups. Eventually, Pfizer purchased Parke-Davis, the patent for Neurotin expired, Gabapentin was born, and the generic drug found its way onto the BOP’s pharmacology formulary where it was prescribed for every condition under the sun.

Over the course of a year, Gabapentin abuse inside of USP Leavenworth and some other federal prisons reached epidemic portions. If you were a drug user of any kind, and you were at Leavenworth between 2000 and 2002, you either used or abused Gabapentin. Most commonly, the number of pills that got you there was eight – eight 600-milligram pills in one pop. Guys were also mixing them with alcohol, mixing them with muscle relaxers, and some of us did them with heroin. We knew that it wouldn’t last, and we weren’t wrong.

Beginning around the summer of 2002, doctor’s at Leavenworth and other federal prisons began taking inmates off of Gabapentin in an effort to curb drug abuse. For those who were allowed to remain on the drug, no long could they carry the medication back to there cells. If the wanted their pills, they had to go to “pill-call” or med-line three times daily and swallow them in front of a nurse, or at least that’s what policy said they must do. The fact of the matter is, not only does a glass window separate staff and inmates at med-line (which makes monitoring medication swallowing difficult for staff), but many nurses can careless what the inmates do with their pills, making it very easy to “cheak” them( i.e., hide them in their mouths).

In 2003 I was transferred to USP Lewisburg and was surprised to learn that doctors in that prison were still prescribing Gabapentin to certain inmates. Because I previously had back surgery, and do suffer from chronic pain, I was able to ask for and receive Gabapetin without a problem. However, I did stop using them. You see, at Lewisburg, guys were paying $5 for 1800-milligrams of Gabapentin, and that’s what I got in a day. So I began cheeking the pills myself and selling them, turning the anti-seizure medication into a $150 a month hustle.

Eight years and four federal prisons later, I ended up at a prison in Indiana (at which I still reside) that prescribes to inmates Neurontin rather than Gabapentin – for chronic pain, for diabetic nerve pain, for Bipolar Disorder, for seizures, and for just about anything. But that too is about to come to an end. According to one inmates who has been on Neurontin for psychological reasons, his dose was reduced last week because they are taking him off entirely.

“They’re taking everyone off the stuff and giving some people Simbalta and others nothing at all,” said the inmate. “From what they told me, there wont be giving Neurontin out anywhere in the BOP by summer.”

A.J., who has been on Neurontin/Gabapentin for the entire 10 years that he’s been incarcerated, says that he’s getting out just in time.

“No bullshit, I couldn’t live in here without the shit, “A.J. said. “And when I go home next week, you best believe the first thing I’m gonna do is see a doctor and stay on Neurotin. I enjoy the high and my P.O. (probation officer) can’t catch me dirty on them, ’cause they don’t show up dirty in a piss-test.”

John, not his real name, said over the years he’s made a comfortable living selling his Neurotin.

“Too many stupid motherfuckers are getting caught with the stuff,” he said. “No wonder they’re taking them away.”

In fact, while a medical staff member did confirm to me that they are discontinuing Neurontin in the next coming weeks, that person said it had more to do with budget cuts, not abuse.

“I have faith in guys in here,” says the medical care-giver. “I’m sure they’ll find something new on our formulary that will get them high. They always do.”

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