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Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Three: The Jenny Barn (continued)

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s note: Today, we present the second half of Nancy’s Campbell’s “Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Three: The Jenny Barn.”  You can find the first half of this post here.  Part One and Part Two of the series make useful complements to today’s post!

In addition to nutritious food, women at Narco lived on a steady diet of talk about drugs­. ‘Dope on dope’ was central to Janet’s experience:

“It’s an international exchange for information concerning dope. . . . You sit around in this dayroom . . . and tell one another stories about junk.” (1961, 220) She didn’t become any less of a junkie inside: “All is junk, and that’s all, you know; that’s the way it is. This identification of yourself as a junkie. After the first six, eight months that I was making it, I never said, ‘Well, I’m a junkie,’ as an excuse or anything. [Since Lexington] I say it constantly. I always refer to myself as a junkie, even when I’m not hooked on anything. And when you’re first introduced to somebody for the first time, the first thing you find out is whether he’s a junkie or not. It’s like belonging to some fantastic lodge, you know, but the initiation ceremony is a lot rougher.”

Something of an amateur sociologist, Janet described “petty class distinctions” at work in the social structure of the Lexington sorority. Everybody’s first question was, “Vol or Con?” Cons stayed longer and were on top of the social hierarchy. Then came drug of choice: “The people who use horse [heroin] all look down on the people who use M and the people who use M all think they’re much better than the people who use dilaudid, and everybody looks down on demerol users as notorious fools” (1961, 219). Janet herself acquired a reputation as a “female homosexual,” because she deviated from the “one-woman-to-a-bed” rule. She disclaimed sexual feelings for other women, but described with interest lesbians bleaching their hair, dressing in slit skirts and sexy blouses, and gathering to dance after dinner—“as if every day was a holiday.”

While not enticed by the lesbian subculture, she was drawn to the jazz subculture. Unlike many of their female compatriots, Janet and May, a pregnant African-American women she befriended, were “hep” to the Chicago jazz scene (where Janet had met her husband, a trombone player, and pianist Howard Becker). On Friday nights, the women eagerly went over to the main institution for the “con” show. Concerts were an occasions for male and female patients to socialize. The inevitable illicit romantic entanglements that ensued were aided by an elaborate system of “kiting,” or messages sent between inmates by every surreptitious method imaginable.

On Stage at Lexington

On stage in the 1,200 seat auditorium at The Narcotic Farm. (Courtesy Kentucky Historical Society)

The pregnancies that sometimes resulted gave Narco authorities administrative headaches. The farm had no obstetrical facilities, so women went via ambulance to deliver in a hospital 6 miles away in town. Babies were usually shipped back to the woman’s hometown and put up for adoption regardless of maternal wishes. Official communiques from the Medical Officer in Charge to Washington, DC, sometimes contained facetious “advertisements” for cute infants to make the point that resources were thin for handling such cases in Kentucky.

Despite Janet’s elaborate descriptions of the beauty of sunsets through the bars, the

Art Therapy at Lexington

Art therapy played a role at The Narcotic Farm (Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society)

rolling Kentucky hills, and the “hurting colors” of the skies, she got the “narco blues” like most vols and signed herself out of Lexington early Against Medical Advice (AMA).

“I didn’t realize just how much it meant to me to leave the place, and how much tension I had been under during the time that I had been there, until I started to get into the station wagon that was to drive me to town, and I was lifting up my suitcase. All of a sudden, my legs started shaking uncontrollably—I had heels on. It felt marvelous to be dressed up again. And I couldn’t stop them from shaking. I just lost all control. I got into the station wagon and started to light a cigarette, and it’s the same thing: I had to hold both hands to get the cigarette up to my mouth and then, just as we were driving out the gate, I started crying. I didn’t know why it should have been so tremendous, but it was.”

Janet would be in and out of jails and hospitals for the remainder of her short life, but never again did she make the trip to Lexington.

Fast forward to the present. In fall 2010, JP Olsen, Luke Walden, and I toured the Federal Medical Center that stands today on the grounds of the former U.S. Narcotic Farm. The former Women’s Building is now a “minimum security satellite camp for female inmates,” according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Welcomed by staff and asked to autograph copies of our book, we were escorted on a tour that included a short walk to the Women’s Building.

Looking back at the main institution from 300 yards away, the changes since Narco closed down as a federal drug treatment center in 1974 were strikingly apparent. We were used to photographs depicting 3 strands of barbed wire to keep cows in. Today the main building is encircled in coiled concertina or razor wire more than 30 feet into the air.

The minimum security Women’s Building is not so different, nor are the inmates. My dominant impression was that, were it not for differing social and economic fortunes, these women were just not that different from any other group of women I know. Mixed in race and ethnicity, class, sexuality, and health status, they were mothers, lovers, sisters, wives, and daughters. Garbed in multi-colored scrub suits, they decorated cramped spaces with photos of partners, parents, children, and pets. They had dreams for the future and regrets about the past. Those on good behavior are allowed to work outside, raking and weeding, and to adopt and train therapy dogs.

Narco’s windows were made to let in a lot of light. Fresh air was part of the therapy. So it

Women's Lounge

The lounge in what was and is now again, the Women's Building (Courtesy of the National Archives)

was with sickening irony that we entered the former Women’s Day Room, a semi-circular lounge area. Jammed into the small area depicted in this photo from the 1970s were bunks for 16 women. But today’s residents find hallways and one-time lounges serving as makeshift dormitories. Such is the outcome of the use of incarceration as “drug policy.” No one checks in and out as a “vol” any more. If there’s one lesson to be drawn from the Jenny Barn, it is that confinement neither deters nor treats women’s drug problems. Incarceration solves few problems and creates many more.

Nancy D. Campbell

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