The Prison Twelve-Step

[This is an excerpt from Lookout for Shorts (Prison Memoir of a Drug War Casualty), an often light account of a slacker’s comeuppance*. The following took place in 2012 at a North Carolina minimum security prison. Names have been changed. *Currently seeking representation.]

Twelve-step recovery meetings were a big part of prison life, mostly because prison administration mandated offenders to attend if they wished to gain privilege promotions. Some guys showed true interest in working the steps and improving their lives, however, and they found support in Southern’s AA gatherings. These were sparsely attended compared to NA , thanks to a much slacker observance of the sign-in sheet. Since guys could sign in and promptly leave, AA meetings usually consisted of only eight or ten guys.

The civilian AA meeting leader was an ex-con called Jerry, a jovial black guy of around sixty. He had a sing-song voice and wore the perma-grin of a former mental patient, which he was. His “shares” usually ate up a good twenty minutes, i.e. fifteen minutes longer than is generally acceptable. They usually included Jerry’s baby delivery story, reading Psalms 23, references to the size of the lines he used to snort, and his confessions of being certifiably crazy. Jerry told of being interned at a “nut house,” where he defecated on the lawn while not even being drunk at the time. The guy was a hoot, at least until it became clear he repeated the same stories nearly every week.

These meetings quickly became redundant, mostly since locked up guys rarely shared new using dilemmas for fear of getting ratted out. A few tidbits emerged that I’ll never forget, however. One guy’s street story described taking extremely hot showers before church to remove the smell of his Johnny Walker Red-soaked Saturday nights.

Another chap observed that the inmate “gate check” − money issued to offenders as they are released to go home — amounted to forty-five dollars. “Now do you think it’s a coincidence that’s about what a handle of Jack Daniel’s costs?” He repeated this at multiple meetings, and he was dead serious.

The group also entered a unique debate about the gray areas of sobriety. For instance, is smoking a cigarette at a literally dizzying rate a violation? What about vigorously smoking one to trigger a bowel movement? After all, I gained a buzz from smoking rapidly and benefitting in this way. And indeed, aren’t most recreational drugs homeopathic and helpful until they’re abused?

Alas, conversational nuggets like these were too rare to transcend the usual tedium of meetings. I heard: “I know I’ve done wrong, I’m going to do right, and I’m going to work the steps,” ad nauseum. Some guys may have benefited from prison AA, but I eventually sought personal growth elsewhere.

Much more worth attending were the NA meetings, even though they weren’t productive 12-step studies either. But at least these watered-down versions were entertaining, because the room was always packed with offenders angling for privilege level promotions.

These meetings were more like a party, with NA and twelve step tenets discussed only occasionally. The bulk of the time was dedicated to war stories, i.e. tales from partying days. This defied traditional meeting customs, but the guy from the outside who ran the show didn’t mind. He knew the awkward silence of guys unwilling to discuss feelings and fears of recovery was no good for anyone. Boisterous story time certainly beat shoe-gazing slogs through the twelve steps, and suspicious yarns full of dubious detail and excitement kept motherfuckers entertained.

Guys told of running from the cops or literally getting away with murder. Sordid domestic violence details were revealed as if describing a trip to the store. I learned that impregnating a gainfully employed woman is a reasonable career aspiration for some guys. I tried to look bored upon hearing all of this, but probably failed.

I also learned outstanding new street terminology. Dry goods is slang for drugs other than alcohol, and coin operated is a street term for a hooker. Pimp rolling describes a confident man’s gait, and “You ain’t gotta lie to kick it” means bullshitting is not required to participate in a discussion. Tales were told of a tecato gusano, a “psychic worm” that many Hispanics believe causes addiction and can never be sated or killed.

Monthly Speaker Meetings were also captivating, as guys took to the lectern and told stories of their misspent lives and the demons that landed them in NA (and prison). Civilian volunteers occasionally filled this bill, but my inmate brethren were usually way more entertaining. I also once took a turn to describe my long-term, destructive pattern of abuse.

Again, my bout with chemicals was less obvious than usual. For instance, my first drink of the day never came through a straw due to the shakes, and I was never broke and/or homeless. Instead, my vulgar pleasures weakened my energies. Hard partying − and the subsequent hangovers — robbed me of motivation to lead a productive life. Anyway, I offered such “recovery talk” for a while, but my audience’s glazed-over eyes soon forced me to move to Plan B.

I then dropped war stories of my own, along with some of my more off-color stand-up material. I killed, so to speak. A bit describing tooth-free fellatio even earned me the nickname Gum Bob. Many guys related to this, since even young adults among the downscale actually have dentures, thanks to methamphetamitic pursuits. In any event, my speaker/comedian turn made me feel great and not like a total loser, at least for a while.

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