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Illicit drug paraphernalia and pills drive opioid crisis in U.S. prisons
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Indecision gripped me as I sat helplessly staring at my cellmate, who overdosed on the latest batch of fentanyl. 

Do I call out for help against his wishes? Do I potentially let him die? Do I risk my neck on the chopping block of prison politics for speaking out? 

As I struggled to reach the right decision, this man I had grown to regard as a father figure in my own messed up world grew bluer. My heart thumped aggressively in my chest.

I begged him not to do it, but who was I to talk? At the time I was only 26 years old, barely into my life sentence and already strung out on heroin. The only thing that linked us was the tragedies of our past, him in his 50s, me in my 20s. I told him of my father’s fatal overdose when I was 6 years old and his open casket funeral. It was probably this vulnerability that caused him to take me under his wing. He was more of a father to me in our eight months together than my own dad was. I don’t think he knew that.

As I watched him fade from existence, I felt paralyzed. All of a sudden, I was 6 years old again, staring into my father’s open casket. The cold, pale touch of his skin took me to that day. 

What was I doing in this place? A lifetime of addiction and criminal living brought me once more face-to-face with my greatest fear: an overdose on heroin. 

I told the porters to call, “Man down!” as I pumped his chest. My Eagle Scout and CPR training from an earlier time, before the drugs and depression, kicked in.  

As they locked me in the shower, I saw a nurse slam a pen into his chest — Narcan. He made it. They slowly wheeled him away, and as he passed by, I caught the most peculiar look. It was the look of someone who had spent 35 years in incarceration, 15 of them consecutively spent in solitary confinement, saying, “Thank you for saving my life.” 

We didn’t exchange any words, but the message was clear. Wherever you may be today, old friend, I pray for you every day.

This experience and similar ones like it got me thinking about my future.

Will that be me 30 years from now, hardened by the system and the war zone of prison? 

How long will I allow tragedies to depress me? It was a choice I had to make, and as soon as I did, I was forever free.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

C.R. Addleman is a writer incarcerated at Centinela State Prison in California.