Transcripts - I'm Curious Podcast

Transcript: College in Prison with Stacy Burnett

Ashley: Hey, everyone! I’m Ashley Asti and this is I’m Curious podcast. My guest today is Stacy Lyn Burnett, who got her college degree in her forties while she was in prison. Stacy was part of the groundbreaking program BPI, or Bard Prison Initiative, which enrolls hundreds of incarcerated students full-time in college programs. And when these students graduate, they cross that stage with a real degree from Bard College in their hands. 
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Transcript - Overdose Isn't Murder: Morgan Godvin on America's Failing Drug Policies

Ashley Asti (00:00):

Hey, everyone. I'm Ashley Asti and welcome to I'm Curious podcast. This episode today is a powerful one. I often overuse that word, but I mean it, it's powerful. It's compelling. My guest is Morgan Godvin. Morgan currently studies public health at the Portland State University School of Public Health. She is a decarceration and drug policy reform advocate. She spent five years addicted to heroin and four years incarcerated as a direct result of that addiction. One of her best friends, Justin, died from an overdose of drugs she had given to him. And she was incarcerated for that, essentially considered his murderer. He was her victim rather than her friend. And so she went to prison, not only dealing with her own detoxification, but from the grief of losing one of her best friends, of facing a potentially 20 year sentence, and after coming off the death of her mom, which she'll speak about in the episode too.

Ashley Asti (01:15):

So in the episode we unpack all of that. Morgan is incredibly intelligent. She offers scathing critiques of current drug policy, drug education, and the prison system. And her critiques are grounded, they're level, they're rooted in research and, unfortunately, her own lived experience. She has lived the consequences of failing policies. I want to thank her now for being so vulnerable in her willingness to share it—not just to share her story with me and each of us listening today—but this is what she does broadly across her life as an advocate. Her willingness to share courageously and truthfully. So let's get to it. Here's my conversation with Morgan.

Ashley Asti (02:03):

I am so grateful to have you here, Morgan. I got to read your, I guess your prison blog or your plog, I think you call it, on your website. And not only do you have a keen intellect, you're such a talented writer. I've heard other people, so many people try to capture whether it's the inconsistencies or the confusion of jail and prison. And no one else I've seen it captured in language in the way you do. So yeah, I'm excited to dive in more and I think, I think you might be working on a book or that might be coming out at some point. So I'm definitely eager for when that arrives.

Morgan Godvin (02:38):

Yeah. Those you know, I wrote a lot of emails from prison and then saved them. My aunt saved them to a jump drive for me. And then I got out and was able to read them again. And I posted a few on my website there.

Ashley Asti (02:53):

I'm grateful to your aunt, too, then

Morgan Godvin (02:56):

Me, too.

Ashley Asti (02:56):

for capturing and memorializing those.

Ashley Asti (02:56):

So what I often like to do at the beginning of these podcasts is go back to childhood a little bit. And I was reading on your website and you have an introduction and you write, "My name is Morgan Godvin. I grew up in outer Southeast Portland, and while my childhood was not conventional ,it was not remarkable." And so you kind of summed up that whole childhood part for me a little neatly. You're like it's unremarkable. It sounds like you were a smart kid though. I think we're probably almost exactly the same age. So I think you grew up in the D.A.R.E. Generation, that education program in school that was just like, don't do it ever, just say no, whatever that non-functioning slogan was. So I'm curious, to jump in, how did you go from this unremarkable childhood to sort of start playing around with—not playing around with, that's not the right word, but using drugs, recreationally? Was it just something fun?

Morgan Godvin (03:47):

Yeah, you know, I had lesbian parents before that was a thing. And so I got bullied. I've been depressed for a long time since I was a kid, since I was about 11, is when I remember really feeling depression. And I grew up hearing about how, you know, that one ecstasy pill is definitely going to kill you if you take it. And I believed in all that, because you know, my mom was in the military and I was terrified of drugs. And I was just like the smart kid in the corner doing my homework, socially, awkward, all that. And then by the time I was in high school, I was having some family issues at home. My parents had separated and my mom had a gambling addiction and ended up getting fired from her job as a professional for embezzlement.

Morgan Godvin (04:40):

And so I went from like a very normal middle-class life to not having enough money to buy food about overnight. And I was 16 at that time. So my life was spinning out of control, but I was still a minor and I couldn't do anything about it. And I was just, you know, a passenger and I started getting into drugs as a way to reclaim independence and control over my own life. And you know, the first time I saw people take ecstasy, I really thought someone was going to die because that's what I was told. And so I didn't take it. I was just watching other people, but then like twenty 17-year-olds took ecstasy and not one of them died. It didn't make sense. How is this statistically possible? I thought one ecstasy pill's definitely going to kill you.

Morgan Godvin (05:31):

And so with that sort of planted the seed, Oh my God, everything I was ever told is a lie. They were lying my whole education about the danger of drugs. So that must also mean that I should just try everything since they were lying. I have to figure this out for myself. I have to think for myself. And so it was fun. The subculture, the people who use drugs, that subculture was very accepting. I wasn't bullied, I wasn't excluded. So I felt a sense of belonging. I felt control over my own life and drugs helped with my depression. So that convergence of factors right around the time I was 16, 17 pushed me onto that trajectory.

Ashley Asti (06:18):

I think it's important that you couch it in that history of trying to regain control. And also I think we're all just seeking belonging. And so many of us have been—feel like we've been—pushed out or not accepted. And so that makes sense to me. And I guess eventually this recreational drug use just escalated for you?

Morgan Godvin (06:38):

Yeah. With the help of the government. (Laughter)

Morgan Godvin (06:43):

So the first time, it was one of the first times I ever did heroin. This was back when I was just using recreationally. My boyfriend and I, we were very hopeful about our future. We'd both just gotten new jobs. We were making a good amount of money. We had our own apartment you know, two years prior, I didn't have enough money for food. I had to drop out of high school to go work at McDonald's. So this was really a step up, a progress for us. But, you know, we didn't really know better. So we were recreationally using hard drugs. And one of the first times I did heroin, we were just smoking it and I overdosed. And he called 911 to save my life, which he did. The paramedics revived me with Naloxone and the police took him to jail and charged him with felony possession of heroin. And we were immediately evicted and made homeless. And he was given a felony conviction and terminated from his job. So overnight we went from super hopeful about our future to being homeless and him having a lifetime felony conviction. And after that, we got a case of the eff-its because a felony is for life. There's nothing you can do about that. And within a year of that, we were both addicted to heroin.

Ashley Asti (07:59):

That's heartbreaking. We'll talk about this later, but that feels like the absolute wrong response from the government. Like it took—you had this sense of hope and when you take it away, it's like, that's a lethal removing, like when you remove that hope and send people out into the streets, what do you expect? So, you know, we'll get into that.

Morgan Godvin (08:17):

I agree.

Ashley Asti (08:20):

Yeah, I figured. So, I mean, one of the first times you try it, you overdose. Are you, when you take heroin, is this something you're thinking, are you thinking about consequences, are you thinking about overdosing, are you thinking about criminal consequences, or you're just looking for some sort of relief or outlet?

Morgan Godvin (08:37):

No, first off, we were young. And so, you know, infamously feeling invincible, like these negative consequences that we'd heard about vaguely would never happen to us, would never befall us, and heroin is not as scary or as dangerous as it is often portrayed in the media when you're not injecting it. So when you're just smoking it off of tin foil, it was very similar to smoking an 80 milligram Oxycontin off of tinfoi, and the Oxycontin—okay, maybe it wasn't prescribed to us, but it was prescribed to someone. It was, you know, a doctor. And then you realize that pharmacologically, it's almost the exact same compound. And especially when you're smoking it, no, you don't know the milligrams. You don't know the dosage, it's not as exact, but the high is the same. And so it wasn't as scary. No, and especially—so knowing my drug education was not practical. It was not, "Do not mix benzodiazepines with opioids because you will overdose." No one told me benzodiazepines have a very long half-life. If you took a Xanax that morning, it is still in your system that night when you smoke heroin. No one told me these things and I was 18 years old.

Ashley Asti (09:50):

So do you want to speak to—I'd mentioned at the beginning the D.A.R.E Program. Are they just essentially teaching abstinence, just like, "Don't do it"? I assume you think that that's not effective?

Morgan Godvin (10:01):

Yeah. So what they do is it's a fear-mongering, it's fear-based education to try to scare you into not trying drugs the first time. That might work for a subset of people. But for people like me, who then have a visual, tangible example of someone using drugs and not dying, it makes us think everything we were told was a lie. And so just—because it's this incredible feeling, like you will, I remember, cause you know, I was what? In like seventh grade, right around the boom of raves and raver culture. So I remember all those PSA's against ecstasy and that my whole drug education was, you know, "Just say, no, this is your brain on drugs". And then my mom, my non-biological mom, I found her bong one time under the kitchen counter. I cried so hard because my mom was a drug addict and was probably going to burn in hell and was definitely frying her brain.

Morgan Godvin (10:57):

And, you know, these are just the things I remember looking back on my life where I'm like, wow, if I just, if I would've had an education somewhat based in reality with some factual evidence instead of fear-mongering. Cause my pendulum swung too far to the other side, right? I had been terrified of drugs, but then I realized they were lying to me. And so my pendulum swung so far to the other side that I had no fear of drugs and thought that all the bad stuff they told me about drugs was a lie. When reality always is somewhere in the middle. Shades of gray, complexity and nuance.

Ashley Asti (11:32):

Yeah. And I feel like that also creates a level of stigma and shame. Like when you found your mom's bong, it's like, Oh my gosh, she's doing something terrible. And I think that's not helping any of us heal or helping the situation at all. Eventually, again, we'll go back to that. I'm sort of jumping around. So, in 2014, you eventually go to jail and prison. We'll talk about that. But I believe before that you had been convicted of felony possession, is that true? Like of a small amount of heroin?

Morgan Godvin (12:01):

Yeah. Twice, once for a gram and once for residue amount swapped with cotton off of a piece of plastic found in my car.

Ashley Asti (12:12):

Wow.

Morgan Godvin (12:14):

Yeah. So I had two possession of heroines. One time I was cooking a shot for my friend in my car and a police officer saw me, caught me red-handed doing that. And I went to jail for that. And then the next time it was a very illegal search that I did not consent to. Even though they wrote in the police report that I did. When I asked for the dash cam footage, they said they didn't have any because they don't have dash cams. Very convenient. Thing is how they were lying in an official police report. And they gave me a felony for a quantity of heroin that could not be measured on the scale at the laboratory because it was residue and put me in jail for that.

Ashley Asti (12:56):

So...Again, this is sort of mind boggling. I know these things happen, but it's, none of it really makes a lot of sense. And also we were talking about this with the hope. So what does that do to you now? Because now you have a felony conviction that's following you for life. You know, you're kind of tied to it. You're tied to it now, a sense of stigma or shame to that. What did that do to your dreams for your life?

Morgan Godvin (13:16):

So, yeah, destroyed me because through my addiction, thanks to social and cultural capital and racial privilege, I was able to maintain some semblance of a normal life, especially going to community college. And while I was addicted to heroin, I got my EMT license and I was getting into paramedic school because I'd reversed overdoses and realized I was good at medical emergencies. I kept my cool when other people did not. And I thought, Hey, maybe I could do this for a living. And so that's what I went to school for. And shortly after I got my EMT license is when I got that first arrest. They offered me drug court. They said, you know, you won't get the felony if you do drug court. And I really believed, I thought that getting a felony conviction was the line I would not cross because it is forever.

Morgan Godvin (14:07):

I did not understand the nature of my addiction in that point and cycling in and out of jail and treatment and detox. A few months later, I finally realized I was doomed. And then—I had gone back to treatment and it was the next day after I released from treatment that I was driving and got pulled over by that officer who found that month's old scrap of plastic under my seat and gave me another felony. And I gave up. My future was over. Because I thought I was supposed to go to paramedic school. There's no way that's happening. I'm never working as an EMT, even though I just invested all that time and energy getting my license. Definitely never going to medical school, years down the line once I figured my life out, because...my arrests, these convictions, they are forever. And so I give up, I said, fine, have it your way. And I will just die in my addiction because, well, there's not very many better options for me, is there?

Ashley Asti (15:10):

In a short span of time, I feel like you were carrying so much, beginning when you were 16 to, to this period that you're talking about in your life. And I know I think in 2013, your mom passes away from an overdose of opioids that were prescribed by a doctor. One, were you shocked by this? And, two, how did you carry this grief? Like how did you, what did you do with all of that?

Morgan Godvin (15:34):

Yeah. I was incredibly shocked that my mom died of an overdose. You know, when I found her unconscious, even if I would've had Naloxone for myself, cause I was an injection drug user, I don't think I would have thought to give it to her because I never would have thought that's what—she had health problems. I would have thought that she had a stroke or a heart attack, even when I found her unconscious and was doing CPR. It never occurred to me it was a drug overdose. But she was already gone. I was fortunate that the police that responded to her death didn't arrest me that night because there was—my syringes were out and I was on probation for that felony. So they very easily could have arrested me the night my mom died and they did me the great courtesy of not arresting me. How generous of them.

Morgan Godvin (16:25):

I didn't exactly deal with the grief. Because I'd already wanted to die at that point. Remember, just months before I'd gotten all these felony convictions and completely given up hope on any type of future in recovery, because there was no point. Beuse I would never be able to surmount the felonies I'd been given. And after my mom died, I just really, really wanted to die. And in this moment, I think I was fortunate that I was on heroin because it was just a little bit more convenient than suicide and it numbed the pain to some degree or at least it knocked me out. So I wasn't conscious and didn't feel it because I was so actively suicidal. And so I think for a few months after my mom died, the heroin almost acted as a protective insulation against suicide.

Ashley Asti (17:21):

You had a compounding of again, this trauma or this loss. Because then a few months later, your longtime friend, Justin, passes away. And I know he had asked you for some heroin one night, I think, and you gave it to him and then he overdoses. So how did you, first of all, how did you find out about his death?

Morgan Godvin (17:47):

He texted me for the heroin, and the next day he texted me again for another gram. He wanted me to deliver it, but no, I was like super addicted to heroin. I haven't showered in weeks. I don't leave my house. I stink. I'm not going anywhere. Like, all I do is sit. So I was like, no, you need to come get it. And he never came, but I was so out of it that I didn't even really pay attention. And then that night, late that night, I'm sitting on my living room couch and the door flies open and in comes the SWAT team pointing guns at me. And they put me in handcuffs at first. I don't understand what's happening. I'm not a drug dealer by any means. So I assume they're there for my roommate who's like a low, small time dealer. That was my assumption. But then they put me in handcuffs and the warrant was in my name. And they said that I was being arrested for the overdose death of Justin. And as they tighten the handcuffs on behind my back, that's how I knew my best friend had died.

Ashley Asti (18:51):

And so I guess in the eyes of the U.S. Government, he's your victim rather than your friend?

Morgan Godvin (18:56):

Yes. All through my paperwork, he's listed as my victim. At my sentencing, his mom was asked how much restitution she wanted from me. I would have been completely liable for all of his funeral and burial costs. She opted out of that arrangement because she does not agree with the government's interpretation that he is my victim.

Ashley Asti (19:20):

I think I have in your prison blog in September, 2016, you had written, "Decades of terrible police policy that arrested people who called for help during a friend's overdose has created the current situation where people are terrified of calling for help. When someone overdoses." You said, "This is how people die. Someone goes unconscious and everyone runs for fear of arrest or being held responsible for the death." And I know you weren't there for this happening to Justin, but can you speak to that, how that policy is failing?

Morgan Godvin (19:50):

Yeah. So now I am a research associate at the health and justice action lab. And they're right now doing research, looking at what happens in areas that create these delivery resulting in death laws and then have media stories about them. It increases the risk of overdose. And I, you know, a microcosm example is me and my friends. You know, everybody knew me and Justin. The heroin scene in outer East Portland is fairly small. Okay. There's not that many of us. And so this had just sent shock waves through us because there is no Oregon law about this. This was the feds coming in, charging us for what would have been a state crime, but there is no—since there is no law, you know, we didn't cross state lines. There was nothing that should have triggered this to be a federal offense.

Morgan Godvin (20:41):

We were in Portland and yet they came in and charged us with this. And all of a sudden people are terrified: "Am I next?" Because even from the time my boyfriend, that first arrest, Oregon passed a law, the good Samaritan law, protecting people who called 911, insulating them from arrest for drug possession. It Does not apply for a federal homicide charge. And so people become terrified because you are being charged with, depending on the state or the area, what usually equates to second degree murder. Murder. And I wish I would have been there that night to call for Justin. But you know, he was so stigmatized that he holed up in his bedroom alone to use. And I just think that's terribly unfair because he called 911 to save my life months before that, when he was on probation and he had to call 911 and then sneak out the back door to not get arrested.

Ashley Asti (21:47):

I think it's important what you're--I mean, all of what you're saying here, but let's say this policy is in place to get drugs off the street, like pull you off the street cause you are a big, bad drug dealer. But you were friends. This was not, this didn't make anyone safer. This didn't get drugs off the street. And I feel like even if you were dealing drugs, I imagine you'd be replaceable because if people want the drugs, there's a demand for it, I imagine someone else could take your spot.

Morgan Godvin (22:13):

Yeah, that's exactly right. So, you know, when they advertise these laws, they say they're used for kingpins and that's a lie. We did an analysis all across the country, more than 50% of the people prosecuted from this law were the friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, brother, or sister of the victim. So that's a lie. So what happens is people are very upset with the overdose crisis and they are going to their politicians and they're saying, "Do something." And so politicians are doing something. That something is this. But doing something and doing something effective are completely different things. And in my case, they were able to move up the chain and get my roommate who was a small time dealer and his dealer and people above him. So there was five of us that were arrested. Did the heroin scene in Portland dry up overnight?

Morgan Godvin (23:09):

No, no one went a day without heroin. We were all replaceable because where there is voracious demand, there will be ample supply. And yet the American government still doesn't get that. We've tried supply side interdiction at the cost of billions of dollars annually to try to reduce supply. But they just send more. Cause as long as our demand is this high, there will be supply because people are desperate. There's wealth inequality in the world, right? So there's always going to be someone to step in and fill those shoes.

Ashley Asti (23:46):

I'm thinking about Justin's mom. She just lost her son. And it sounds like, though, she waived restitution. So I'm guessing rather than being angry and thinking you should be prosecuted. She thought that was the wrong move, too, even as his mother.

Morgan Godvin (24:01):

Yeah, that's right. I'm very fortunate in that way. A lot of people seek—they want someone to blame and the person who's dead from an overdose is dead. So you can't blame them. So they go to the next best thing, which is whoever gave them the drugs. But Justin's mom knew me. I was fairly close with their family for several years because he was one of my best friends. And she knew. She understood her son's addiction. She'd watch him struggle with it for years and years cycling in and out of jail and prison. And so she did not do what is so natural for some parents is just to seek vengeance and blame. She was able to rise above that and she saw me with compassion and she said, no one killed her son. In fact, he didn't even die of an overdose. He died of a broken heart.

Ashley Asti (24:58):

I'm glad you brought up that word compassion because I feel like we could use more of that. So you're eventually sent to jail and you have to detox in jail. What was that feeling like? Did the jail provide you any resources in this detox journey?

Morgan Godvin (25:17):

No, of course not. So that was my fourth time in jail in a year. But what had happened in between the last time I was in jail and that time is my mom had died and left me with money. And so my use had gone from a half gram a day to upwards of six grams a day, which sounds physiologically impossible, but there's actually no ceiling for opioid tolerance in human beings. We can just become more and more and more tolerant. And so I assumed that I was going to have the worst withdrawals of my entire life, but I didn't. It was terrible. It was uncomfortable. And the jail intentionally tortures you because they have buprenorphine and they have Suboxone to ease the suffering of withdrawal. They just choose not to give it to you, which is punishment for the sake of punishment. But what was much worse than withdrawal was those were the first moments I was sober since the death of my mom and Justin. So I was sober, in jail, being told I was facing a 20 year mandatory minimum sentence for the overdose death of one of my best friends and detoxing from heroin. So that conjunction was much more difficult than the physical effects alone.

Ashley Asti (26:33):

I feel like that's almost an unnatural level of grief and loss to deal with in any circumstance and even to try to deal with it in a healthy way outside of a jail. But when you're in jail, you must have—I don't know what your situation was like. Were you in a cell with other people? Were you in dorms? Like you probably get no privacy to even feel what you're feeling and what's coming up for the first time.

Morgan Godvin (26:55):

Yeah, it was an open dorm. So 78, well not 78 bunk beds, but 78 beds in one giant room. And that is where you detox. You can just vomit into a trash can while everyone watches. And when you cry, when you're grieving the loss of your mom or your impending 20 year sentence or the death of your best friend, you're crying in full view of everyone around you. And that was my life.

Ashley Asti (27:27):

You're mentioning a 20 year sentence and that's what you thought you were facing. I assume you pled out? Is that why it got reduced?

Morgan Godvin (27:35):

Yeah, I was sentenced under the prior Attorney General, Eric Holder, before the Sessions memo. If I were to be sentenced today, I would have probably been sentenced to 20 years until the next administration takes charge and appoints a new Attorney General. So I was told that I was going to do 20 years, but because it was that administration, I was able to plead down to a lesser charge of conspiracy to distribute heroin. And for that, I was sentenced to five years, but this is wide prosecutorial discretion. I was able to come and say, look, I have my EMT license. I wasn't a total, you know, worthless piece of crap. Okay? I Joined the air force. You know, I'm technically a veteran, even though I was declared medically unfit for service in basic training, you know? So I had these things going for me that really do stem from racial and class privilege when you break them down on a historical analysis. But that's not what the courts do. It's a meritocracy in the courtroom. So they just looked at me and, Oh, you got these points and you've done this? And so the prosecutor offered me this very low plea deal. If I was a person of color, I would still be in prison today. If I was sentenced under the Sessions memo, I would be in prison for the next 10 years.

Morgan Godvin (28:59):

Anyway, that's not justice. So wide discretion is not justice, but it benefited me. And that's how I'm able to be here talking to you today.

Ashley Asti (29:11):

Right. Yeah. After jail, you're moved to federal prison. Are these the cushy camps we see on TV shows? Or what was your experience in a federal prison?

Morgan Godvin (29:25):

Yeah, I always have to clarify, not a camp, not like the TV shows you've seen. I was sent to a higher security level. Technically it's low, but that's just because all women's facilities are called low because, you know, we don't stab each other like men's facilities. And so I had a cell. And I had a cell that was built for one person that all of a sudden housed three. There was no floor space. It was all occupied by either the single bed, the bunk bed or the lockers. There was your toilet to do your business about 12 inches from the head of your roommates. And there was nowhere to sit, nowhere to write. There was no desk, there was no surface, it was just beds and a toilet and a sink. And when we did count, you had to stagger yourselves because you couldn't all fit standing shoulder to shoulder. When the guards walked by, there wasn't enough space in the cell. It does not meet the square footage minimum requirements as set by the Bureau of Prisons, but there's no oversight body for the Bureau of Prisons. So no one cares.

Ashley Asti (30:34):

Hmm. Wow. I can't imagine.

Morgan Godvin (30:38):

Imagine during COVID lockdown when you're locked in that cell 24/7?

Ashley Asti (30:44):

Because I imagine we're still facing overcrowding in a lot of these places?

Morgan Godvin (30:48):

Oh yes. Terribly.

Ashley Asti (30:50):

Yeah. What about the COs? What was your interaction with them or treatment by them? 

Morgan Godvin (30:58):

Yes. terrible. Shockingly terrible. So again, military brat joined the military. I have this certain naive conception of what the American government is and, ou know, people that are represented. People that are the face of the government. So then I got to federal prison where they have the American flag on their shoulders because it's a federal prison uniform. And then they screamed and cussed at me, called me bitch, "Shut the fuck up." And I'm just shocked. I'm like, what? Wait, no, no, I'm an American citizen. You cannot talk to me like this. Oh, but they can. And you just get used to it over time. You get used to being called inmate or being shouted at, or just really arbitrary rule enforcement that they do just for fun because they're bored and have really low job satisfaction. Of course there are good ones too, right?

Morgan Godvin (31:54):

There are people there, there are exceptions. And I wouldn't say the heinous evil ones are the rule. They're also the exception. The vast majority of people are just disinterested, disaffected, maybe a little bit negligent. Again, they have low job satisfaction. They don't do much, but they also don't interfere with your daily life. But then you have people on either ends of the spectrum, people that are unusually good and want to help you and want to see you have a better life. And then you do have a disproportionately large, when compared to average society, segment of people who are evil, who inflict cruelty for the sake of it.

Ashley Asti (32:34):

I feel like that's the last place that you need someone who's disinterested, when many people who end up in jail or prison need some sort of support, need some sort of education, love, whatever it might be. That's when it harms the most. And that's why when we talk about your life, we'll talk about your life now and what you're doing. And I want to be clear that you're sort of an exception, like prison is not what rehabilitated you, and I'm putting that in air quotes. You're an anomaly in the system. I think I'd read somewhere that you, because you had this money from your mom that she left, you were able to pay for emails, which are expensive, and phone calls and commissary. Can you talk about the cost of those things and why that's an exception and why it's important?

Morgan Godvin (33:18):

Well, Noma County jail, a 15 minute phone call cost $6 and 25 cents. And if I so felt like it, I could make five a day. And I would often because I was bored and lonely and told I was facing 20 years in prison and grieving the death of two people that I loved, including my own mother. So if I wanted to make five phone calls a day, I would, I didn't care. Also money didn't hold much value for me anymore because I felt like my life was over. And so I just burned through my savings. Making $6, 15 minute phone calls. I could call my friends to ask what they had for lunch and the woman next to me couldn't call her kid on the first day of school. And that was the system. I was always able to buy commissary. I always had snacks. I could have myself whatever books I wanted. My aunt would order for me and send to me, you know, from Amazon. And so I lived comfortably on the scale of relativity within prison. And yet I still suffered greatly because of the scarcity inherent to prison. And I did that while spending $400 or $500 a month from prison.

Ashley Asti (34:30):

And I feel like isolation—especially you're in a federal prison, so you're not even close to home. So people have family members that are far away that don't have the money to come visit. They can't see their kids. They can't afford phone calls. Isolation does not heal anyone. I think we all know that community is what nourishes us and brings us together. And so that's another reason why the system is unjust, unfair, and money in this situation matters. Again, not to lessen your pain or your suffering or not to be like, "That was a great experience," but it does matter. And it's sad that this is the situation.

Morgan Godvin (35:02):

Yeah, it's absolutely true. It's the worst. It's the deepest injustice I saw because most women in prison are mothers. And to sever their communication with their children involuntarily, to just to separate our community ties to such a horrible degree. Federal prison, it has many Native American women because federal crimes committed on reservations send you to federal prison. So there were women from reservations all over the country from Arizona to North and South Dakot. There is no way their family can afford to visit them. There's just no way. And they have a video visit software like a Zoom, but it's $6, again. And that might sound marginable. But look at who you're putting in prison. We are putting the poorest of the poor in prison and then expecting their family to pay exorbitant rates for communication that would otherwise be free. There is no—in prison, a 15 minute phone call was $3 and 25 cents. That's not real. It doesn't actually cost that much. There are corporations that are profiting off of our suffering and they're doing it legally. This is written into American law. All these things they're doing are completely legal. Does that make them right? No, God, no. It's evil, but it's legal. And yet what I did was illegal and the government declared it wrong and put me in prison. Isn't that a conundrum?

Ashley Asti (36:32):

Mmm. A lot of these women, once they're released—beause a lot of them do return to their families and their communities—they're essentially sent out. They don't have money. They probably didn't get the resources or training or education that they needed inside. Basically they're like, Go out on the streets. And if you had an issue or struggle with addiction before, they tell you, Just don't use drugs. Isn't that bound to fail? Like when you're left with, again, without the supports?

Morgan Godvin (37:01):

Yeah. And so not only do you not have the supports, you are given more barriers. So people who need more help. Okay. So they've been absent from society. They have a four or five-year work gap on their resume. They might have a low reading and writing level or a learning disability and a history of addiction. These are the people who need more help. And what do we give them? More barriers. Call this phone number every day, pee in this cup, you can't work here. You can't go here. You need written permission to do this. Any job you apply for, they're doing a criminal background check. You're not getting hired depending on what state you live in. You might not even be eligible for food stamps because you have a drug conviction. There's no rent assistance. There's no welfare. You have $0 and you have no clothes to wear. When you get out, you're getting out with literally nothing and starting from scratch. You don't even have clothes to wear to go to an interview. The exact population that needs wraparound services, that needs more support, gets barriers instead.

Ashley Asti (38:04):

Let's talk about how you ended up in college. Because, again, you sort of were the exception. You had to work around the system, essentially work around the disinterest, the whatever it is. I feel like I'd read that you applied to get into Portland State University through the help of a friend over the phone or something in prison. Is that true?

Morgan Godvin (38:26):

My friend Ian was a student at the time. And so I made one of those $3 and 15 cents phone calls and he got on his laptop. Cause of course we don't have the internet. And I would just try to tell him what to do. And he would read to me what he was seeing on the screen. And then I would tell him what to fill out. And that's how I applied and was accepted into Portland State University, with him fraudulently pretending to be me while I placed a prison payphone phone call.

Ashley Asti (38:51):

And I'm laughing cause it's the absurdity of it. But it's not funny. Like you shouldn't have to go through that many hoops in order to get out and get an education and successfully move on with your life and not let that punishment follow you. Even though it's going to keep trying to come back at you. And like you say, you're kind of tied to it.

Morgan Godvin (39:09):

I had to fill out my FAFSA on paper. I had to have a friend of mine send my paper FAFSA to me and then me fill it out and send it to some address in Kentucky months in advance. 20, 30 years ago, it wasn't as drastic the difference between people in prison and people not in prison. Tthere was still an infrastructure to do things on paper and through the U.S. Mail. That has dissolved because everything is now done online, everything is digital, but yet people in prison have no access to the internet. So this digital divide is incredibly drastic. So people in prison, again, need more help and are getting so much more barriers because they are just being locked out of so many opportunities because they don't have the internet.

Ashley Asti (40:02):

And you mentioned the digital divide. If you don't have the digital literacy skills or I know this is my privilege, but when I was 18 and I was applying to college, my dad filled out my FAFSA and he's an accountant. I was like, "Here." I didn't even have to try to understand the paperwork. And, again, if you're coming from a perspective of not even having the literacy or the skills, or like, I can't—I don't even have words cause I can't imagine it.

Morgan Godvin (40:29):

So much of my time at the halfway house--so I lived at the halfway house as a "BOP inmate" for six months. It was spent teaching men who had gottem out after 10, 15 or 20 year sentences how to use a phone or how to compose an email, how to download an application on their phone. They were just hamstringed because if you haven't had that exposure for 15 years, you get out and it is a critical, critical skill for survival in modern society. Even when you learn it, it's just a superficial grasp. You can do the bare minimum. You will never be, you know, savvy. You'll never be technologically savvy if you got your first cell phone in 2019.

Ashley Asti (41:13):

Mmm. Yeah. I want to look a little bit at the policy stuff that you're studying and advocating for. I believe that you essentially advocate that drug decriminalization is the only way to end drug use. Can you explain that?

Morgan Godvin (41:31):

Yeah. So criminalization is du jour stigmatization. Okay? So stigma is criminalization by another name and it is the stigma that is killing us. Stigma itself is far more dangerous than the drugs. It's what causes us to use alone so there's no one to administer Naloxone. It's what makes us lie to everyone around you. Because if I told you the truth, if I admitted that I was using heroin, you would exclude me from that space. And so it creates this culture where you are forced to lie and hide. Access the black market. We don't know the purity of the drugs. We don't know if it's contaminated with fentanyl. If I get robbed or raped while trying to buy drugs, could I call 911? No. So it's creating this whole segmented, separate part of society that is pushed into the shadows. So even the best public health messaging does not reach people we have pushed into the shadows.

Morgan Godvin (42:33):

And until we clean up these dynamics, make people be able to ask for help and then receive the help they want and need the moment they want and need it. So if someone wakes up today and says, I don't want to use heroin today. They can walk to the corner and either dose on Suboxone or methadone, their preference. But have it be just as easy to get medications for opioid use disorder as it is to buy street heroin. And right now it's much easier to get heroin than it is to get medication. Why is that? Well, that is the FDA. These are federal government regulations that have created this mostly because it's so heavily stigmatized by society. And why is it so stigmatized? Because it's so highly criminalized. And then the stigma and the criminalization becomes self perpetuating and work in tandem.

Ashley Asti (43:31):

When it comes to finding solutions, I don't think we have to reinvent the wheel. I believe that there are other countries that are already coming up with more health oriented solutions rather than criminal solutions. Do you, can you talk about any other country that might be leading the way on this?

Morgan Godvin (43:48):

Yes. I mean, even in Canada, there are pilot programs to have self-supply, where you put your hand up and it scans your hand biometric and doses you hydromorphone, which is Dilaudid little tablets, which you can either ingest or inject at will. But that means you know the exact dosage of your drugs, you are not going to a drug dealer. You're not committing a crime to feed your habit. Your needs are met. So then you can focus on, you know, everything else that composes life, like, what else do you need to survive? Getting a job, finding housing, relationships, satisfaction, joy. We can't think of any of those things until our basic daily needs are met. Portugal decriminalized drugs a long time ago, brought it out of the criminal sphere and into the public health sphere. Saw drug use rates plummet, saw infection, hepatitis C, HIV rates plummet.

Morgan Godvin (44:46):

It's not reinventing the wheel. There are so many jurisdictions internationally that have experimented with decriminalization and/or safe supply with huge success. Data do not lie. You know, it's all right there for the taking, but we're so fear-based. And then the United States, we have such profound fear mongering ingrained in us and I get it, okay? We had to believe that the war on drugs was the answer because it was the only way to justify spending billions of dollars and destroying millions of lives. So we really bought this lie that we were sold that, you know, incarceration was the answer. Obviously it's not because we've been doing these punitive policies for decades now. And year after year, we're shattering overdose records. More than a hundred thousand people have died from overdose in 2020. Thanks to the social isolation of COVID. Social isolation is the opposite of what people need when they're, when they're suffering from addiction.

Morgan Godvin (45:51):

And yet it's been our primary response. We've been putting people in jail, in prison, which is social isolation. And now we have this little laboratory example of 2020. What happens when you put people in social isolation? Oh, well, overdoses skyrocket. But we've already known that, but finally, you know, policy wonks are having to take notice. You can no longer say that incarceration and criminalization is the way because we're dying at record rates. And if we just let our moralistic garbage go for a second and just look at outcomes-based policy, follow the data, we have solutions. We really do. And they are at our fingertips. They're cheap, they're affordable, they're accessible. They save lives. So let's do that because my friends are dying.

Ashley Asti (46:41):

And like you said, it works. You know, it's not even like we have to guess, does it work? We've seen other people, other countries and it's working. The data shows that we could prevent people, like you said, your friends from dying. So it seems like an obvious solution to me. One of the last things I want to talk to you about is in my work, I'm a writer and storyteller and someone who is interested in that aspect. As you know, you've gone on many different podcasts shows, you advocate, you're in the newspaper. You're kind of all over doing what you're doing publicly, and you're sharing your story. And I feel like for so long, there's probably been a stigma attached to that. Do you find that in getting to share it now and sort of a little bit more on your own terms and as a student who's studying this, does it help to start to peel away the shame? Does it help to tell your story?

Morgan Godvin (47:30):

You know, I don't have the luxury of feeling shame anymore. I had to shit in front of my roommates for years. Like you said, I think that really contributed to it because I lost all embarrassment or shame. My mugshot was broadcast in all the local papers for many different possession arrests. Then I was arrested and tossed in jail. And then you get strip searched constantly all the time, spread your cheeks and cough. Then you're having to, you know, defecate in front of strangers. I was no longer susceptible to the shame laid on me by society. I had nothing left to lose, nothing at all. And so I got out and I, it wasn't even a conscious thought. I just, I had no shame left. And so I will just talk about these horrible things that I saw over and over and over. And then I realized that this system is created in such a way that it makes most people like me not ever talk about their experiences because they're stigmatized, because it's shameful. Yeah. I reject that outright. I have got no shame left to give and me talking about these things that are not often talked about has created good in society. I can share these, these horrible tragedies that either happened to me or that I witnessed. And they surprise people because people don't know that this is happening because it's not often talked about. And so I'm glad. I'm glad that I suffered such shameful circumstances for so long that I just had to abandon any concept of privacy.

Ashley Asti (49:10):

Yeah. I think I said this is the last thing, but I, as usual, always have more. But this is the last thing. Do you want to speak to this moment? Like you touched on it before: we're in this pandemic. People have had to isolate and feel disconnected in ways that they perhaps might not have before. In particular, I'm thinking about people who might be in recovery. I imagine the draw to go back to something that can give you relief is strong. Do you want to speak to that in any way?

Morgan Godvin (49:36):

Yes. So these times are hard. I am a person in recovery, but I don't, that's not the first piece of my identity that I lead with. I'm a student. I'm formerly incarcerated. I am gay. I'm all these other things first. And recovery usually tails that. And I don't know why. It's very personal. You know, people's struggles are different. But in quarantine during this pandemic, my recovery has been, has bubbled up to the forefront because for the first time ever, I thought about using heroin. So for years and years, I didn't, it didn't even occur to me. My life is great and wonderful. Why would I want to be unconscious? But now I have, I'm lonely. There's uncertainty. I don't know what the future, my life is meaningless. I don't go anywhere. And, and then, so I get these old thoughts,

Morgan Godvin (50:34):

patterns from years ago, bubbling back up in my brain. Well, maybe you should just do heroin? Whoa, I haven't heard that thought in years. And I assume, I don't know, but that this is what's happening to a lot of people in recovery because we're seeing a lot of people relapse and die. As you know, right after a relapse, you have no tolerance. You're at a very high risk for overdose. And that is a substantial portion of the overdoses, are new relapses, which is tragic. But I don't really, I don't have a good answer for this. I'm struggling with it, too. I see a psychologist through the VA to get treatment. I've considered going on antidepressants, but I didn't do it. You know, it's just redefining what our purpose is, even if it's just for that day. Like, I'll just make my little to-do list. Here are the four things I need to do today.

Morgan Godvin (51:30):

And if I'm able to cross these things off, you know, my day was meaningful. I fulfilled my life's purpose for that day. So really zooming in and looking at very small bites and trying to redefine meaning in my life. But it's very, very hard. And I sometimes feel like I'm in jail or prison. Again, I am out of control and I feel lonely and there's uncertainty and I don't feel safe. My physical safety is in danger. Am I getting a virus? And so it's touching on my PTSD from living unsafe in the drug, heroin subculture, and then unsafe in jail and prison. And now I'm unsafe because of a virus. And so it's just triggering all these past things in me. And it's so hard, but I have a lot of amazing friends and a great psychologist and I try to eat right. My diet is really important to make me not feel like garbage. And exercise, which I could be doing so much more than I am, but I'm confined to this little office and I can barely even go outside.

Ashley Asti (52:44):

I'm glad you're here. I'm glad that you're sharing. So, honestly, I think for someone like me who has—I've not experienced jail or prison, I've never taken a drug. I barely even take like, you know, a Tylenol. For me, I feel like I can tiptoe around this. I'm afraid I'm asking the wrong questions. Or like, Oh my God, you know. And you're making it safe for me to learn. And I hope other people ,too. Because I know curiosity is what draws us a little bit closer. Because then maybe I'm going to finally listen to you and learn something and be surprised. And maybe that will move me to help create change that we need. So I appreciate you allowing me to ask my questions and learn. And like I said, not just with me, but for continuing to share your story and doing the work that you're doing in school and in your life. So thank you.

Morgan Godvin (53:30):

Yeah, of course. This is my, you know, my only advice: if you know anyone in recovery, no matter how long they've been in recovery, reach out and ask them how they're doing. But a component of criminalization is when we're struggling, we are reluctant to admit it. No one wants to say, "I'm thinking about committing a felony." "I'm thinking about going to get some heroin." Nobody's going to say that because that is the landscape we've created under this regime of criminalization and punitive drug policy. But pick up the phone, call them, you know, FaceTime your friends. Hey, what's up? How are you doing? Cause it's what we need. It's this social isolation that is killing us.

Ashley Asti (54:14):

I'm going to leave it right there because I think that message is the exact right one: to pick up the phone and let people know that you love them. You're thinking about them. Thank you, Morgan.

Morgan Godvin (54:24):

Of course.

Ashley Asti (54:24):

I'm really grateful I got to have this conversation with Morgan and meet her, well, virtually in the age of this pandemic. When I had originally reached out to her asking if she'd be a guest on my show, she was game right away, willing to share her story with me, a perfect stranger at the time, I definitely encourage you to check out more of Morgan's work, her advocacy, her writing, her on other podcasts. You can visit her website, morgangodvin.com and follow her on Twitter @MorganGodvin. Thanks for joining in and I will catch you next time on I'm Curious podcast.

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