Nonfiction by John Cochran

A couple of years ago, I began to hear a new word in the prison patois, one that was totally unfamiliar to me. Gurp. On any given day, walking around the yard, one was almost certain to hear one prisoner ask another, “Hey man, got any gurps?” I knew it was something to do with drugs, specifically pharmaceuticals, but I didn’t know which. I didn’t particularly care. In here, trouble sticks to drugs like hair on soap, and I had gotten all the trouble I needed a long time ago.  

Then, Gurp evolved from a noun into a verb, “Check out Two-Bit Tony, he sure is gurped out today,” and then into an adjective, whereby one could be “gurpified,” “gurptastic” or even “gurpalicious.” At this point, curiosity had forced me to sit up and pay attention.

I remained ignorant of the etymology of gurp until last winter, when my buddy Roger and I were walking home from dinner after a snowstorm. We passed the pill line and noticed several dozen colorful piles of vomit in the snow. I mentioned that it appeared as though dinner had disagreed with a lot of people, and Roger informed me such was not the case. Then, he pointed to the pill window.
There was a new policy in place that required inmates leaving the pill line to open their mouths, lift their tongues, and run their fingers around their gums while a ward examined them with a flashlight. This was done to prevent inmates from hiding the pills and selling them later, as was commonly done. But inmates came up with a workaround anyway: swallow the pill and take no water with it. Leaving the pill line, step several feet around the corner of the building, and… GURP… up comes the pill. They puke it out.
I was fascinated and horrified. I knew that people cheeked their pills and spit them out after leaving the line. I knew about people swallowing bundles of dope in the visiting room and even sticking small packages up their rectums—but those are carefully sealed packets, this is a bare pill in a puddle of puke.
Prison is full of dope. Alongside the old standards—pot, coke, meth, heroin—that come in through guards and visitors, there are black market psychotropics issued to inmates in the pill line every day: Thorazine, Haldol, Elavil, Xanax, and others. Although the pharmacy doesn’t provide the ferris wheel of fun that street drugs do, there is a place on the midway for any head change in this circus of doom.
One in five inmates are taking prescription medication at the time of their imprisonment. The Department of Corrections owns its own pharmacy and is only too happy to give anyone in this miserable place a bit of chemical comfort. Make the people unhappy, offer a solution. It costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, but it provides the prison with a tidy profit and keeps the herds under control. The most recent trend in psych meds is Wellbutrin. It’s an antidepressant that the inmates seem to believe has a kick. They say it’s like snorting speed, though I think it’s more like wishful thinking. And yes, I did say snorting. Very few inmates swallow their pills. We shoot them, smoke them, and in the absence of a needle or matches, crush them up and snort them. It hits quicker and has more of a “back home” feel, I suppose.
The majority of the inmate population doesn’t have much money. Prison jobs pay in the neighborhood of $5 a month, and poverty being one of the biggest driving forces behind crime in this country means that people come in broke. The illegal drug trade helps. A Thorazine or Elavil tablet might fetch fifty cents to a dollar on the black market, but right now Wellbutrin is worth $10 per 300 milligram pill. An inmate getting two pills a day could earn $600 a month. And demand is insatiable.

It didn’t take long for word to get back to the administration that half the yard was snorting their (or someone else’s) Wellbutrin. To halt the secondary market, when dispensing Wellbutrin, nurses were ordered to crush the pills and float them in a cup of water. That caused two distinct problems. First, most inmates stopped taking their prescriptions. Their only need for the pills was financial, and crushing and dissolving them in water made reselling them impossible. Second, some of the pills were time-release, and crushing them negated the effect of the buffering compound in the tablets. With profits at the pharmacy flagging and depression apparently worsening, administrators reversed their policy of crushing the pills and Wellbutrin was back in business, although with new security procedures in place. Thus, gurping was born.

That night with Roger, I couldn’t help but more closely examine the frightful scene of varied colors and chunks in the pristine snow, representing the beverage choices of inmates at dinner: orange, purple, red, blue, green, and yellow. In the deeper drifts where the snow had melted through to an appreciable depth, there were vomit holes and evidence of human beings excavating through the foul miasma of chilled regurgitant. I stood there like an idiot. Roger said, “Yep, just like momma birds.” I nearly added to the scene when Roger pointed out several whole, unchewed peanuts and suggested we might rinse them off and save them for a snack.

One thing about people here is we live rougher, riskier lives. We’re more prone to engage in dangerous, unhealthy behaviors like intravenous drug use and unprotected sex. Life is hard and we live it hard to make it work for us. In addition to being disgusting, there are medical reasons to avoid snorting something that someone else yakked up.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) thrives in tightly-packed populations like prisons. It is a so-called superbrg because it spreads quickly and is difficult to treat, being resistant to certain antibiotics. When a new prisoner arrives, he is put through two weeks of admission and orientation processing where he is repeatedly advised of the dangers of MRSA. There are video kiosks spooling cautionary lectures and signs posted in living areas that punctuate the lesson with frightening pictures and superfluous exclamation marks. The slogan, “If it’s wet and it’s not yours… DON’T TOUCH IT!!!” is pounded into prisoner consciousness from day one.

But for some, the pull of gurps is stronger than the threat of MRSA. In prison, drug addicts often form cliques or co-ops where they can pool their drugs and share paraphernalia. Needles are hard to come by and lighters and matches are rare, so sharing makes sense. Sharing also means that if any one’s stash gets busted, he doesn't have to go without. He has homies. But of course, nothing is clean, let alone sterile. So they might share a bad cold between them too, but that doesn’t stack up to the hurt of withdrawal. On the outside, this behavior is dangerous. In prison, the implications are ghastly.

Whether the vector was vomit or a snorting straw, we can never know. What we do know now is how quickly a MRSA staph infection can grow in an environment made almost exclusively of mucus membrane and soft tissue. When one clique returned from a trip to the hospital, each of them was missing pieces of their nose, lips, or face.

When an inmate undergoes a marked change in appearance—growing or shaving a beard, going from long hair to bald, new tattoos—he is required to have a new ID made. So dramatic were the changes in their facial characteristics, every one of them had to have a new picture taken. I think of it every time I walk past the pill line and see the bright, colorful snow that looks like a springtime flower garden blooming in the dead of winter.