Illustrations by Allison Conway

I smoked a lot of marijuana in prison. I served 21 years of a 25-year sentence for an LSD conspiracy charge, so it goes without saying that I had a lot of time to kill. While I was very familiar with good weed in the days before my incarceration, the quality of herb, as well as my access to it, varied wildly in the big house. Sometimes weed was hard to get, sometimes it was plentiful. Sometimes the weed was garbage, sometimes it was enough to get the job done. Every once in a blue moon, though, it was as good as anything you’d get on the outside, and the dank would immediately be scorched down by the inmates lucky enough to get their hands on it.

In the late ‘90s I was at FCI Beckley, a medium-to-high security federal prison in West Virginia. There, I used to get some killer weed off this dude from Tennessee we’ll call Big Pete. Big Pete used to get some fire bud every weekend during visitation hours. And I’m talking nice flower — not the shit that came all crushed up, as if it had been previously swallowed in a balloon (which often was with other prison dealers). Either Big Pete had a secret orifice somewhere on his body, or he partnered with a guard to smuggle it in. Who can say? To this day, I don’t know how he got the quality weed inside, but the question still crosses my mind every time I get the chance to smoke top-shelf herb.

Back then, I would wait for the guy to come back from his visitation hours and hover around his cell while he did his thing. But the problem was he would only sell people a joint or two tops at $20 a J. And these were pinner joints — maybe four hits. Regardless, Big Pete’s pot was so good that it didn’t really matter: one hit and you were blasted. In a way, I felt honored that he even sold me the over-priced dank; he was very exclusive about who he’d sell it to, and only a couple of white guys on the block were in the know.

The bud I got from Big Pete was definitely the dopest dope that I ever smoked in prison. I still remember hitting those pinner joints in my cell, lying on my bed, and just relaxing, letting my mind open. For me, it was an escape from prison, the only escape I was getting. Not everyone in jail has such a reliable plug, though. If anything, it’s an exception to the rule. To get more insight into the process of acquiring prison weed, in all its complicated glory, I reached out to some ex-cons and currently incarcerated prisoners to find out what orange-clad stoners are working with on the inside.

Robert Rosso
47-Years-Old from Arkansas
Serving Life at FCI Terre Haute for a Meth Conspiracy

In 2005, when I was serving time at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, I befriended a guy I'll call "Benny G," a Brooklyn-born associate of the Gambino Crime Family. He lived next door to me in F Block with a dude named Tommy, another mob-cat from Miami. For about two years, at least once a month, Benny G's kid brothers would come up from the city and bring him a few balloons. Benny would wait until the end of visit, pop them in his mouth, and swallow them. Once he got back to the block, he’d drink a few cups a water and throw them up. Within moments of leaving his visits, we’d be getting high.

One night, Benny had the weed rolled in a real joint, meaning it was a street joint, not some little pinner or crumbs that prisoners typically smoke behind the fences. As soon as Benny lit the thing, I knew this was something different. This stuff smelled like a skunk on steroids. It was possibly the strongest weed I ever smelled — if it was actually weed.

Not only that, but two hits of this shit and I was rocked. It was some crazy-ass weed that was more like opium than marijuana. But the real kicker was that it smelled so strong it blew up the block — I mean all three tiers. Everyone was trying to figure out where the weed smell was coming from, cops and convicts alike. The whole unit smelled like some dank-ass skunk bud.

The fucked up thing was that this shot-caller for La Eme, an old head named Willy Bobo, had just hit on some dope, and damn near half the unit was fucked up on heroin. Pretty soon we had to deal with some very pissed off mofos who were all upset that the whole block was going to get piss tested due to the omnipresent scent. The hacks came in, made us lock down, and more than 30 guys got bottled and failed a test — all because of that damn weed. It was a total fucking bummer and I’m lucky somebody didn’t stick a shank in my gut for blowing up the spot.

Follow Robert Rosso on Twitter.

Ryan Leone
31-Years-Old from California
Served 60 Months for a Heroin Conspiracy

I spent time in a few federal prisons across the country, and the way weed was sold was pretty universal. It's measured in "sticks" or "caps." A stick is enough for a couple of people to smoke, but only in prison. In the free world, it would be small flakes that you’d brush away if you were rolling a joint. A stick looks like gold fish feeding food, or very tiny specs of shake that line up the stick. A cap is usually 10-14 sticks, depending on how greedy the person selling it is, and it's measured with a Chapstick cap. A cap filled to the top with shake can run you upwards of $100, depending on the quality.

Lighters are scarce in prison, but people usually generate a flame by making something that looks like a flower with toilet paper and then using batteries to make it spark. You can also cut a razor blade in half and put each side on the positive and negative of the battery, if the bottom is touching metal. Most prison cells have metallic desks or sinks that work perfectly for this flame-on method. You can also use little aluminum strips from a candy bar.  I've seen some real sophisticated shit in prisons with a wood shop. People make wooden battery boxes that have a coil at the top, so you can just stick two double A batteries in the box, squeeze it together so the coil gets red hot, and then light tobacco or a joint on it. It makes it easier if you're smoking on the yard.

When I was in federal prison in Wisconsin, they had a pretty interesting technique. They would cut a stick into little chunks. One stick would make 5 or 6 chunks, then you use one of those red hot coils that are attached to a battery pack and essentially freebase the chunks with a metallic pen. You aim the pen at the chunk and inhale through the pen, holding the smoke in for as long as possible, and then blow it into a towel. It's such a small amount of smoke that you can get stoned without people even smelling it.

Order Ryan Leone's book on Amazon here.

Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez
43-Years-Old from Los Angeles, California
Served 10 Years for Assault with a Firearm

It was late October, back in the mid ‘90s. I was housed on the West Yard at California Men’s Colony. I wasn’t much of a drug user, but on occasion I’d smoke some herb with the homies. During this time, it was extremely difficult to come across any substance. The correctional officers had the place pretty tight, with drug sniffing dogs doing walkthroughs during visitation hours. It was hard for those trying to get a fix. In fact, the tension on the yard was at it’s peak. Lot’s of disrespect, and fights would break out between arch enemies and homies alike.

Then one day, the homies and I were walking laps around the track. We noticed a group of Asian men, gangster type, hanging out on the far end of the bleachers. I saw a cloud of smoke, and figured they’re just smoking tobacco, but as we passed by them, the smell hit us. One of the Asian guys noticed me smiling, and smiled back. The homies wanted to strongarm rob them, but I knew that would get us nowhere. Luckily, the next time I was on a visit with my girl I noticed she was talking and laughing with some Asian chick. Once I knew my girl had became buddies with that dude’s chick, it was on.

After our visit, I approached the Asian dude, and shared our new thing in common. He shared how his girl would bring him in weed via his tennis shoes, where she hid  the stuff underneath the sole — very professional shit. In those days, a Chapstick cap of weed sold for about $20.00. My homeboys were ecstatic with the news. I didn’t want any haters to cause us grief, so I decided to give some away to other crews in our building. I enjoyed my smoke out of a pipe made from an apple, reminiscing of good times. In the following days, things seemed at peace in that cesspool of bitterness. Hardly anyone had beef, and you could actually hear laughter on the yard — something that had been missing for a while.

Order Goose Alvarez's prison cook book here.

John Broman
39-Years-Old from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Serving 18 Years at USP Big Sandy for Robbing Banks

You never really know what you're getting when you're buying weed in prison. By the time it makes its way to the yard from the streets, the weed has been shredded, stomped, and beaten to a pulp to fit inside a balloon the size of a Peanut M&M. Once the balloon makes it to the yard, it's broken down into crumbs that are sold for $10 a wop. By this point, it's beyond recognizable other than the fact that it’s weed and will get you high. Whoever is selling the shit will always tell you that it's "loud,” regardless of what the fuck it is. After 15 years of purchasing weed in the joint, there's really only one time I can remember buying anything worth mentioning. This was the time I bought some "shit weed.” My connect told me he had some “super loud,” and that he’d give me a whole balloon for $100.

In the feds, you're lucky if you can buy a Chapstick cap for $100, let alone the whole balloon it comes in. But there was a catch with this balloon, he told me. It had opened a little bit and kind of smelled like shit. He passed the balloon through the fence and I held it up to my nose to see how bad it was. "God damn!" I shouted out as the funk overwhelmed me. But being outside on a yard full of cameras, cops, and rats, I really couldn't check it out to see just how bad it was. I cuffed the balloon and walked the yard until it was time to go back inside. The whole time I was walking, all I could smell was shit. But me being the pothead that I am, I still bought it.

As soon as I got inside my cell, I threw up my curtain and busted open the balloon. My tiny cell immediately stunk like a port-o-john on day three of a chili cook-off. As I pulled open the balloon, my hands were getting moist with ass juice. When the packaging was finally removed, I could see that the entire nugget of weed was brown. It wasn't brown as in “Mexican dirt weed” brown, but brown as in “literally soaked in shit” brown. Now, I've been a weed connoisseur for fucking ever, but being in prison I've learned to lower my standards and just be grateful for whatever comes my way. But, damn, this shit was bad.

My celly looked on with disgust as I put my pipe together — a metal pencil eraser top slid into a rolled up playing card — and pulled off a soggy morsel. The flame hit the goo and sizzled like an egg in a frying pan. It took over a minute for the clump to dry up enough to hit, but by God the damn thing eventually hit. I pulled hard on my penitentiary paraphernalia and blew out a cloud of smoke that would choke Snoop Dogg. I immediately felt the wave run through my body as the weed took hold. The cell might of stunk like a bucket of assholes, but that shit weed kept us high for a week. Doo doo covered or not, that was some of the dopest dope I've ever smoked in prison.

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Visit Allison Conway's website for more of her illustration work