color photograph of a shelved wall of insect killing products at a store. the logo for prism reports is overlaid in the top left corner. from the left side, an orange text box emerges with white text that reads "Drug use in prison endangers rehabilitation efforts." below it, from the right side, a black text box with white text reads "Rampant, unaddressed drug use in prison kills what little hope there is to restore already vulnerable populations"
Miami, The Home Depot, Insecticides. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

I hate when people stop right in front of me, I hate running late, and I hate large crowds. Needless to say, I was hating prison life while making my way through the massive amount of people congregating outside the housing units. I was in the middle of rushing to class when the intercom announced, “Yards closed.” Now, everyone was either heading toward me or moseying around, taking advantage of their last few minutes of yard time before the officers drove them inside like a stubborn herd. 

I was running so late that when a woman brake-checked me, I became immediately annoyed. She stopped moving, and there was no way around her. Someone behind me yelled to get her attention and the woman abruptly turned, exhaling an unapologetic cloud of chemical smoke in my face.

I was stunned by her disrespect and audacity. Drug use is getting real inside these walls. I debated turning back and giving her a piece of my mind but decided against it. I had too much to lose. Things would only escalate and she obviously did not have anything to lose. Maybe she just didn’t care. Either way, I refused to give up everything I was working toward. 

A clear path through the crowd finally opened up and I made a beeline to class. Whatever the woman was smoking invaded my mouth. I tried smacking my tongue, swallowing, and sucking in clean air. Nothing worked. I needed water. 

In class, I plopped my books down at my usual spot with my school buddies. A friend immediately asked if something was wrong. I shook my head, scanning the room for a fountain, a faucet, anything. There was nothing.

The lecture already started, so I wrote what happened on a piece of scrap paper and slid it to my classmate. Her eyes widened and she looked at me empathetically. She reached into her pocket and handed me a peppermint, mouthing, “I would be pissed.”

I was pissed. 

Not just at the woman who exhaled in my face, but at the whole institution of mass incarceration. The irony? My school major is correctional rehabilitation, and the class I sat in was “Ethics and Professionalism in the Criminal Justice System.” 

Prison is where society sends us for rehabilitation. We are supposed to get help. Many of the women here have substance use disorders or are trauma survivors, abuse victims, and more. My experience just walking to class was a major trigger. For a second, I almost wanted to use and I definitely considered aggression.

What if I wasn’t as strong or as far along in my recovery journey? What if I made a different choice? The availability of drugs in prison has the potential to sabotage the rehabilitation efforts of many well-intended women like myself. 

When I first came to the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) in 2015, drug use inside the walls didn’t seem as obvious. It certainly was not blown in my face. Unfortunately, women now smoke in the bathrooms, nod out on their bunks, stumble around, fight over debts, and manipulate their families for money. Raids from the special response team are business as usual.

I asked around and learned women are smoking bug spray or “wasp dope.” According to research led by University of Kentucky professor Dr. April Young, wasp dope is a crystalline insecticide that can give users a “methamphetamine-like rush.” The drug is sprayed on paper that enters prison through the mail. The “paper,” as it’s called here in ORW, is then smoked or dissolved under the tongue. Some of the drug’s effects include severe headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and the inability to breathe, walk, or speak. Dr. Young’s 2020 study concluded that “wasp dope use could be an issue of public health concern and warrants far more scientific and public attention than it currently receives.”

I anonymously surveyed 15 women about wasp dope use. Ten had been offered paper and eight of those ten used the drug. 

I asked one wasp dope user going by the pseudonym HK about the drug. She described the high as “real chill, like smoking weed.” She also stated that wasp dope was “kind of” jeopardizing her rehabilitation efforts and definitely jeopardizing her relationships.

“People that were my friends look at me different,” she told me.

Prison officials have tried to address the problem by changing the mail policy, requiring everything but legal correspondence to get photocopied. The new policy means we only get copies of our mail. It does not appear to have put a dent in wasp dope use, and many people are upset by the policy. 

One woman commented, “I think that it’s bullshit. It takes away our connections from home. Mothers can’t even get colored pictures from their kids.” Another woman agreed, saying the new policy was unfair to those who don’t abuse the mail system.

The punishment in ORW for wasp dope use is solitary confinement. The prison’s administration also established a phone tip line for people to anonymously report drug use. However, some incarcerated women are abusing the tip line because of personal or drug-related vendettas. Some report drug activity simply to get a person’s belongings destroyed by correctional officers—one of the most devastating experiences you can have in prison. The little stuff you do take comfort in gets trampled and tossed about. It is not unusual for officers to dump coffee, laundry soap, and even destroy pictures.

At their core, incarcerated people are a vulnerable population. We are forgotten, misjudged, and deemed pests to society. Most incarcerated individuals will eventually get released into the community as your neighbors, coworkers, and even friends. Prison should be a place that helps us reach that point, and that segregates us from our vices, rehabilitates us, and helps us change our life trajectories. Instead, rampant and unaddressed drug use in prison kills what little hope there is of restoring people.

I’m trying so hard to get away from drugs, but I am trapped here in prison, so close to this trigger that I can taste my downfall. Drugs are everywhere and wasp dope warrants far more public attention than it currently receives. Incarcerated individuals and their rehabilitation also deserve far more attention than they currently receive.

The Right to Write (R2W) project is an editorial initiative where Prism works with incarcerated writers to share their reporting and perspectives across our verticals and coverage areas. Learn more about R2W and how to pitch here.

Heather C. Jarvis is an expert on the gender-specific issues one faces while incarcerated. A survivor of addiction and the criminal legal system, Heather now dedicates her life to helping others pursue...