From its opening in 1935, the United States Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, epitomized the nation’s ambivalence about how to deal with drug addiction. On the one hand, it functioned as a compassionate humane hospital, an “asylum on the hill” on 1000 acres of farmland where addicts could recover from their drug habits. On the other hand, it was an imposing federal prison built for the incarceration of addicts.
“Narco” as it was known, was a strange anomaly, a coed institution where federal convicts did time alongside volunteers who checked themselves in for rehabilitation. It became the world’s epicenter for drug treatment and addiction research. For forty years it was the gathering place for this country’s drug subculture, a rite of passage that initiated famous jazz musicians, drug-abusing MDs, street hustlers, and drugstore cowboys into the new fraternal order of the American junkie.
It began as a bold and ambitious public works project. But Narco was shut down in the 1970s amid changes in drug policy and scandal over its drug-testing program, where hundreds of federal convicts volunteered as human guinea pigs for pioneering drug experiments and were rewarded with heroin and cocaine for their efforts.
From the fly leaf of a book titled, The Narcotic Farm”)
In 1958, when I got off the train at Lexington, I grabbed a cab and told the driver my destination. He called his dispatcher and simply said “Narco Farm”
I entered Lexington as a 25 year old volunteer—basically to detox from Heroin. I left after eight days still in a half ass withdrawal and shot up about an hour after getting off the bus in New York.
I did the same exact thing two years later in 1960. In 1962, I ran out of a place to stay. I am now homeless. Lexington becomes my home. So, after two previous visits, I finally enter general population. But at this particular time, all the beds were taken in the general population. So I was housed in the “F” section—the jail section of Lexington. It looked exactly like a prison tier you see in the movies.
I had my own private cell, my cell door was open so I could walk around the tier, but only throughout the “F” section. I could not wander or explore outside this jail section. Of course, the main gate to this jail section was double locked. Nonetheless, I was grateful for the privacy of my own cell and happy to have three hots and a cot.
After about three weeks, beds freed up and I entered the general population where they had dorms. As part of their classification process, I took an MMPI psychological test, an aptitude test, an IQ test. As luck would have it, I got a job in the same Psychology Dept. who administered the tests.
This was a big score because only guys doing at least five years worked there. My fellow inmates, a guy named Ike was doing ten years and the other guy, Dave was doing five years. Both were in for illegal possession.
My job was to take a template and superimpose it over the markings of the individual test sheets and come up with a score for the various testing categories. A simple job in a clean office. I worked along with my two fellow inmates and psychologists that looked like and sounded like Steve Simon. I caught a break.
At night, after lights out, the rule was no talking. On this particular night, I ignored the rule and continued capping and goofing. A disembodied “hack” (corrections officer) overheard me, gave a flash from his flashlight, and simply asked, “Name and Number”. I answered, “Dibble, 58584.” (This was my original number. I was the 584th inmate to enter in 1958.)
After making a note of my name and number, the hack intoned in an authentic, down-home Hatfield and McCoy twang, “toooo owwers, extrah dooty.” Which meant that on a Sunday, I would have to do clean-up duty for two hours. (Thus, on the next Sunday, I dusted and cleaned off all the horizontal and vertical prison bars for “toooo owwers.” There was no waterboarding or brutality in this institution.)
I started to hang out with a guy from upstate NY who made no bones about getting down with another guy. Homosexual trysts were no big thing there. I was never approached and my Roman Catholic background and cultural imprinting would have militated against it anyway. I never asked my friend if he was a pitcher or a catcher. (Or if he played both positions.)
All famous jazz musicians were, without giving a second thought, called “rats” Every famous name you mentioned, someone would say “he’s a fuckin’ rat.” (This must be urban legend stuff. There must be at least one musician who did not rat.)
By the mid-1950s Lexington had become an elite fraternity for addicts as well as the epicenter of drug culture in America. The soundtrack of the new junkie subculture was jazz, and some of this country’s best jazz was played at Narco“Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts” by Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen and Luke Walden. from Chapter 10 “The Greatest Band You Never Heard”
I myself never snitched on anybody; however, with enough pressure brought to bear on me, I’m quite sure I would have easily fallen in the rat column.
And by the way, as weak-kneed and as spineless as most addicts are, who wasn’t a rat there? Where were the stand-up guys? Were they in the minority or in the majority?
Female inmates would come up to the Psychology Department to either be tested or have a group therapy session. Many wore dresses without panties underneath. When other male inmates were waiting for their sessions or tests on the opposite side of the waiting room, one or several of the females would ”take a picture” for them. This meant that they would every so slowly cross and open their legs and give a wide-angle view of their vagina. This was just another way to game the system and drive the boys crazy.
While shooting the shit one day, I ran into an inmate who was a guinea pig in the Addiction Research Center. He said he had been given a drug and with a few hours watched his legs walk away from him. He did not know the name of the drug. (it was obviously LSD but we didn’t have a clue then. The CIA subsided many of these tests).
Another guy said that, as a tolerance test, they had him up to 80 grains of morphine a day and could have kept going. They later brought him down on methadone.
Before the Saturday night movie, in exchange for some commissary tickets, we would score nutmeg from a connection in the kitchen. We’d take several large tablespoons with water in the afternoon and by showtime, we were stoned—it felt like a pothead. Not a bad way to enjoy a movie. In this case, the movie was “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with Audrey Hepburn.
On Sunday, I attended an NA meeting. The times were different then. No outside AA or NA member civilians were allowed into the prison. So the inmates used the Big Book of AA as their basic text. I must say this was the ONLY positive enclave of recovery in the whole joint. I was very impressed. Not impressed enough to stop using when I got released, but impressed nonetheless. (It wasn’t wasted; years later, I joined AA and NA.)
I heard about Synanon at Lexington. I was discharged in four months. And when I became homeless again—six months later, I entered Synanon. This was the luckiest break I EVER got.
Note: check out this short film which includes commentary from former Synanon residents John Stallone, Bernie Kolb and David Deitch
Categories: drugs and alcohol, Synanon Stories, The Early Days
Thanks. When I came to Synanon, I detoxed off of methadone on the couch in the living room at Santa Monica. A horrific experience. Those good folks stayed with me 24 seven. I remember them holding me up and walking me back and forth.
Thank you for sharing this Dena. If you have any stories you’d like to share any of your Synanon Stories please contact us.
Thanks for everything Ted. About 8 years later I was on methadone at Rikers…and then came Synanon.