The Terrible Toll of Spice

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Jeremiah Bourgeois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Like most prison systems, the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) is crowded.  Tough-on-crime rhetoric drove policy for far too long—in Washington as with other states.

Despite being filled to capacity, WDOC strives to maintain safety and security within its facilities.  In fact, the Washington legislature decreed that the correctional system be designed and managed to provide maximum feasible safety for both staff and inmates.

But actions speak louder than words.  That is a maxim correctional officers at one WDOC facility have learned.

When staff members at Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC) report for duty, added to their list of worries is the possibility of being struck down by a prisoner suffering from delusions—delusions induced by smoking synthetic cannabinoids called Spice.

The effects from smoking Spice are similar to marijuana, but it is more intense.  That, of course, describes the lucky user’s experience.  For the unlucky, the drug can cause agitation, uncontrolled body movements, hallucinations, and psychotic episodes.

Quite simply, it can drive you crazy.

One does not need to contact a poison control center or emergency room to learn about the negative effects of this substance.  Security cameras at SCCC regularly capture what happens when prisoners high on Spice lose their minds.

Men have inch-wormed naked across the floor mumbling nonsense.  Fled terrified from their cells as if demons were at their heels.  Thrown harmless objects believing they were bombs.

Screamed out their darkest secrets for the world to hear.

On and on and on.  Hardly a week passes without another episode related to Spice.

SmokePlume William Warby

Photo by William Warby via Flickr

Yet demand is still high, for the drug is more intense than marijuana.  The rewards are too great: there’s a 1,200 percent profit margin when Spice is sold behind bars.  This drug is proving to be irresistible to prisoners in Washington State.

Internal investigators are trying to put a stop to it.  They listen to telephone calls.  They listen to informants.  Yet nothing much has come of it because, as noted by The Washington Times, “a mix of inmate ingenuity, complicit visitors and corrupt staff” keeps drugs flowing inside large prison systems.

A Scourge in English Prisons

The swiftness in which Spice spread throughout prisons in England and Wales should alarm prison administrators across the United States. According to The Centre for Social Justice, Spice use is one of the most significant threats to rehabilitation and security that British prisons have faced in decades.

How WDOC reached this point brings another maxim to mind: You get what you pay for.  Reason being, the etiology of the epidemic can be traced to cost-cutting measures implemented by WDOC.

To better manage scarce resources, officials decided that urine samples taken from prisoners should no longer be sent  to outside laboratories for analysis.  Instead,  preliminary results from urinalysis cups are now considered conclusive evidence for establishing guilt .

From the outset, the policy spelled disaster for prisoners who had not used illicit substances, due to the high rate of false positive results from the urinalysis cups used by WDOC.

Still, no amount of tears or official grievances led WDOC to change course.

But other prisoners eventually found reason to celebrate.  Because the in-house urinalysis methods are ineffective  when it comes to detecting Spice, these prisoners came to realize that they could use synthetic marijuana to get high with impunity.

There was no crying or grievance-filing from this camp.  It was party time.

No longer did they have to drink gallons of water to flush traces of marijuana out of their system.  Or play countless games of basketball to sweat out evidence of their misdeeds. They could smoke Spice daily.

And occasionally go crazy.

And threaten safety and security.

And put staff members in jeopardy.

Security Isn’t Cheap

Recall for a moment that the avowed goal of WDOC is to maintain safety and security.  However, accomplishing this mission does not come cheap.

If urine samples were sent out for laboratory analysis as before, undoubtedly the perception that one can get away with smoking Spice would come to an end. And as the certainty of punishment increased, the rate of use would decrease.

But this would require something that state governments are in short supply of nowadays: Money to pay for all of the things citizens want, but do not want to pay for.

The Spice epidemic in WDOC illustrates the types of negative outcomes that can occur when correctional systems are tasked to achieve too much with too little.  While it may seem trivial compared to California, where the U.S. Supreme Court had to intervene to resolve problems related to overcrowding, it provides a glimpse into the early stages of system failure as the cost of incarceration becomes too costly.

The lesson should be clear:  The worth of a thing is what it will bring.

Ullimately, preserving the status quo of America’s criminal justice system requires compromise and sacrifice.  Everyone pays a price.

Washington is just one state where payment has become due.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is an inmate at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, WA, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He will be eligible to go before the parole board in 2017. He welcomes comments from readers.

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