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Red glass dome of a wall-mounted fire alarm
Photo by ChuangTzuDreaming on iStock

The fire alarm rang. I knew it wasn’t a fire drill. We all did. I scratched the crust from my eyes, tied back my locks, threw on a pair of sweats and filed out of the cell block with the rest of the guys into the frigid corridor, where we spread out against the wall. One of the correctional officers in the hallway instructed us to keep our hands out of our pockets as the drug-sniffing dog came trotting through.

While the dog worked, I drifted off, thinking of Lu.

Luis Figueroa was a good friend from childhood, and as we grew older, and eventually landed in prison together, he became my brother-in-arms. He overdosed late last year at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Chemung County, New York. He had returned to his cell from the yard at 8 p.m. By 8:25 p.m., when the officers did their rounds, he was keeled over in his cell. Staff did what they could to revive him, but he was gone.

In the years before his death, Lu had started smoking K2, a dangerous synthetic cannabinoid which comes in two forms: one is green and looks like weed, the other is sprayed on paper, like acid was back in the 1970s. But K2 isn't dissolved on the tongue; it's torn up and sprinkled in a rolled up cigarette. And lately, K2 has been getting spiked with fentanyl and other harmful chemicals that can cause serious problems and even lead to death.

Lu is just one example of the consequences of the flood of K2 in prisons and jails across the country. With a constantly changing chemical composition, the drug can be hard to detect, which is one reason it’s so attractive inside. The high it elicits is more intense than regular weed, providing a potent escape from the indignities of prison life. But it’s impossible to know exactly what you’re getting when you smoke it, and that’s why it’s so dangerous.

The number of people who have died of drug or alcohol abuse rose more than 600% between 2001 and 2008, according to a study released in 2021 by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

I considered Lu to be my little bro. I dated his sister, Yaztrie, in high school. His family is my familia. I also did time with Lu in two different spots: Green Haven in 2011, and Clinton in 2017. Back then, Lu only had two habits: weed and Suboxone, an opiate blocker.

In prison, we don’t get help with substance abuse, just punished for it. Getting caught with marijuana could land you in solitary. That’s why Lu, after being severely punished for using a drug that you can now use recreationally in the state of New York and across the country, switched to K-2. I wonder if the state had tried to treat addiction rather than punish people for it, we wouldn't have so many of them smoking paper and green stuff laced with deadly chemicals. I wonder if Lu would still be alive.

Lifetimes of addiction

I tasted my first beer as a toddler. It was summertime. Flipping on an old mattress, I'd worked up a thirst. My older sister and her boyfriend were hugged up on the couch. I asked for juice. He clutched a frothy 40-ounce and asked, “You want some?” I nodded. When he tilted the bottle to my lips, it tasted bitter and bubbly — disgusting. He laughed at me and said, “See, careful what you wish for.”

My taste buds matured by the time I turned 14. I fell in love with the euphoric warmth the booze induced. I drank to silence the butterflies in my belly before a rap battle, and to forget about the trouble at home and the growing social pressures and anxieties of high school.

I met Lu in 1998 when I was 15. He was 12 years old and a pretty boy, a Puerto Rican tanned like The Rock. He had slick, curly, jet-black hair. He rolled a perfect blunt, finessed the fonto leaf with ease. 

“Hold this with both hands so it doesn't dry out,” he'd instruct me as he broke up the bud. We stood on the side of the apartment building where he lived in Poughkeepsie, a small city along the Hudson River some 80 miles from New York City.

When he walked through the door, red-eyed, his clothes smelling of weed, his mom cussed him out. It wasn't that she was a square; it was that she was in recovery, and she knew what addiction could do. She was afraid for her son.

I've always been afraid of dying like my biological father, who was an alcoholic and was murdered in Harlem before I was born. My mother's PCP habit during her pregnancy caused her to lose custody of me when I was an infant. She cleaned up before she passed away in 1994. My 11-year-old eyes, blurry with tears, peered into her casket on the day of her funeral.

I believed then that she loved drugs more than me. I was her only son. My grandmother, before she dedicated her life to the Lord, fought addiction for over 50 years. Lu's mother also struggled and remains in recovery.

At 17, shortly after I broke up with Lu’s sister Yaztrie, I slipped into a depression, dropped out of school and joined the Bloods. I still dropped by Lu’s house, greeted his other sister, Amy, and walked straight into the kitchen to hug his mom. I inhaled the rice and beans cooking on the stove and crashed on their sofa. Lu, if he was home, chilled in his room and blasted Noriega on his stereo. Marijuana smoke wafted through the house. I brought the beer.

And one drink at a time, I drank it all — ice cold or piss warm. It obliterated my troubles, from street beefs to relationship dramas. I stayed home to drink. I drank to be with the ladies. I drank to numb myself after bloody knuckles, busted lips and throbbing black eyes. I poured Heinekens into coffee cups and sipped them discreetly on the job at the Poughkeepsie Journal, where I worked in packaging. When the newspaper was discontinued and I was laid off, I had more time to drink. I drank myself out of a music production deal and out of my daughter's life. I drank when my nephew Lloyd overdosed. I drank to sleep.

I drank myself right into this 25-year sentence.

A chain of consequences

I've been locked up for 13 years. I'm in Sullivan Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in the Catskills, serving a 25-year sentence for manslaughter.

In 2008, I met a girl named Anna, a kindhearted woman, whose smile always squinted her eyes. She loved to smooch, dance and sing on-and-off key. She was 23, I was 26. We dated for almost a year until one night, after an evening of dancing and drinking, we got into an alcohol-fueled fight about her drinking.

If I wasn't drinking, we wouldn't have argued, and I surely wouldn't have handed her the knives when she threatened to stab me for leaving. If I wasn’t drinking, Anna wouldn't have stabbed me. And I wouldn't have stabbed her. I wouldn't have been taken to the precinct, rushed to the hospital and then sent to prison. She wouldn't have died.

I have to live with that profound survivor’s shame. As a man and father, I felt emasculated in my shame.

I made a series of senseless decisions that summer night because of my inability to say no to a bottle. The nihilistic question scratches at the edge of my mind: Were we broken-links, joined by the unforeseen and inevitable chain of consequences of substance abuse? I bear the physical scars and psychological trauma. Anna bore the ultimate consequence. And yet, I envied her.

In 2013, when Lu and I were locked up in the same spot, he pulled up to my cell with a blunt and asked about what happened that night with my girlfriend. He smoked, listened, didn't judge. Then he passed me the blunt. In a heartless place full of strangers, Lu knew me.

I thought about that moment the night I heard he had overdosed. I put a bedsheet up to cover the bars of my cell so no one could see me, and I cried for Lu. I listened to “God Did,” that track by DJ Khaled featuring Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, John Legend and Fridayy, when Jay-Z raps: “Lot of fallen soldiers on these roads of sin / For those who make the laws, I'ma always have smoke for them.”

I sparked a joint of weed and blew it in memory of Lu. I let the tears fall for my fallen comrade. I didn't give a damn who heard me. It felt good.

Luis Figueroa was a beautiful person. He loved his family, he laughed from the gut, he was loyal.

After the fire alarm rang and all of us lined up against the wall, I felt the drug-sniffing dog's nose against my groin, just north of where I had my weed. The hound stopped. I tensed up as I thought about how Lu’s punishment for a bud led him to use K2 and overdose. The dog sniffed again. I glared at the animal as I silently cursed every bitter bottle, every godless glass that got me here. It whined, and moved on.

In my cell, I grabbed my tablet and searched for a silver lining as I reread Lu’s sister Amy's last email: “He's free now. Seventeen years and he never stopped complaining. He hated it there.”
I do too, but I look forward to freedom and to rebuilding my life. No drill involved.

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

Robert Lee Williams is creative writer and author of “The Perfect Mommy Manual,” a short book of fiction under the literary pseudonym Sir R. L. Smoke. Williams is incarcerated in New York.