Brian Quintanilla Incarceration Mental Health

What We Lose When People Overdose in Prison

I have seen too many incarcerated people die this way.
Photo credit: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

By Brian Quintanilla / Prison Journalism Project

It was 5:05 a.m., around the usual time I wake up for chow. I was brushing my teeth and getting ready when, suddenly, I heard yelling on the tier — the patio inside a prison building that connects our cells to the dayroom and recreational area. 

“Man down!” someone began yelling and banging on their cell door. “Man down!” The prison alarms went off with a loud, “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.” 

I glanced outside my cell door and observed a group of 10 corrections officers running up the stairs. They arrived at cell No. 243. The door opened and one CO dragged the inmate by his feet onto the tier. 

His body was a purplish blue. I had never witnessed skin that color before. The staff began CPR, one covering his mouth with an oxygen mask while another put immense pressure on his chest with both arms. I noticed the inmate’s legs violently jerking and both arms jumping up and down. They took turns trying to revive him, with no success. 

The COs began talking to each other. A muscular one who had been doing CPR was sweating profusely and his arms were shaking from all the effort and adrenaline. He was breathing heavily, took a step back, and walked away in disappointment. Medical staff arrived with a gurney. 

The moment they removed the oxygen mask, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and my stomach turned. There was a thick substance — it looked like vomit — dripping from the person’s mouth. This was my first time experiencing the aftermath of an overdose in prison, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last. 

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I remember thinking to myself, “I know that guy,” and reminiscing about the night that I nearly injected poison into my body.

My Close Call With Heroin

In 2012, the prison I was at was on a six-month lockdown. I was indulging in risky behavior, and boredom was a major trigger for me to get high. 

My cellie at the time came back from the prison medical unit with a syringe. “Look what I got!” 

He removed the needle and started to assemble what we call “a prison syringe,” a process that involves several writing instruments. He got his Pilot pen and removed the rubber from it; then he grabbed a Bic pen and removed the pen filler. Taking the plastic part of it, he shoved the rubber inside the plastic part and tied it with a string from his socks. He got a No. 2 pencil and cut the eraser off with a blade. He gently inserted the needle into the eraser and the plastic part of the rubber. 

“Wala, ready to party?” he said as he took a piece of plastic out of his sock, which appeared to be tar, or heroin. 

My eyes lit up. That was my first time seeing this drug. My cellie got a spoon and put his left arm out. I noticed a cluster of bulky, dark-dotted veins that appeared to be track marks. He found a thick, rough vein that was sticking out and injected himself. 

I vividly remember seeing the syringe bubble up with foamy blood, then release. He put his head back as his eyes closed. I got frightened and heard a small voice inside my mind say, “Son, don’t try it.” I stood there, shocked, at what I was hearing and seeing. Thirty seconds passed before he regained consciousness. “You ready?” he said in a raspy voice. “Nah, I’m good,” I responded. 

I know God spoke to me that day and allowed me to exercise good judgment. After the lockdown ended, I moved out of that cell.

My Friend O.G. And Fentanyl

One summer afternoon, I was sitting in the hot, sticky dayroom watching sports. A man named O.G. walked up to me and introduced himself. We began talking about sports. He seemed like an outgoing guy. It was 2016, and California had begun releasing inmates who had been in solitary confinement for decades back to mainline, or the general population.

“Where you coming from?” I inquired. “From the SHU,” he said, using a shorthand for the security housing unit, a maximum security facility for inmates considered a threat to the safety and security of the prison. Guys there were typically held in their cells 22 to 23 hours a day. “I did 25 years there.” 

“Damn, O.G., that’s a long time,” I said. “How was it?” 

“You adapt to your circumstances,” he said. 

From that point on, we began to have a good rapport. He would always stress the importance of learning and how we should strive for a higher education. Talking to him would always get me thinking and analyzing my own life. 

Several months passed, and we were once again talking. He seemed excited. “Waz up, O.G.?” I asked. 

“I’m finally going to see my mom,” he said in a cheerful tone. “I’m going to my family visit.” 

Family visits consist of three days and two nights with a family member in an apartment outside prison. That day we talked about change and hope. “I haven’t kissed or hugged my mother in 27 years. She disowned me for all those years,” he said. I noticed the sadness in his voice, and I could empathize with him due to the loss of my mother. After we finished talking, we headed back to our cells.

That night O.G. passed away from a fentanyl overdose. I knew he had a dark and horrible secret, but I overlooked it. Maybe I could have said something or helped him with his addiction. 

A Call for Hope

O.G. passed away seven days before reuniting with his mother. I imagine the phone call she received that day. I think about the grief and sorrow she must have endured. Later, I found out that the family had to drive all the way to the prison to identify the body. After 27 years, she finally saw her son, but in the worst way possible. 

This was one mother out of the thousands who grieve the loss of their babies from drugs. 

It doesn’t surprise me that a drug epidemic has invaded the prison system. It is difficult to accept hardships, problems and pressure as part of life. It is painful, but the growth that comes after can be positive. 

Before we take that next hit, let’s consider our family, friends and ourselves.

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Brian Quintanilla

Brian Quintanilla is a writer incarcerated in California.