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Black Market In Tobacco Makes Prisons More Violent

New America Media, Commentary, Dwight E. Abbott Posted: Apr 14, 2007

Editors Note: The new ban on tobacco products in California state prisons has created a valuable black market commodity --with all the dangers that go with it, writes Dwight Abbott. Abbott is serving a long prison sentence at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, California. His book, I Cried, You Didnt Listen, about growing up in the California Youth Authority in the 1950s, has just been republished by AK Press.

smoking convictSALINAS VALLEY STATE PRISON, Soledad, Calif. -- The Department of Corrections (and Rehabilitation) knew it was going to happen before it banned tobacco products from California prisons. An experiment was conducted for several years earlier in the California Medical Facility state prison in Vacaville banning all tobacco. Within weeks, tobacco was being smuggled into the prison by visitors and guards. One $10, six-ounce can of Bugler tobacco then sold for $50.00, gradually increasing to $300.00. Individual cigarettes or rollies (400 can be made), first priced at $1.00, became $10.00 each. Three months passed, and a pack of Camel cigarettes was selling for $150.00 plus. Violence erupted as profits proved tobacco to be more valuable than drugs. Everybody wanted a piece of the action.

No matter those disheartening findings, to improve working conditions and cut health care cost among inmates, the DOC bulled forward: there would be no smoking by inmates or guards beginning July, 2005. The results, as expected, mirror exactly what occurred at the California Medical Facility. Black marketing of tobacco became more profitable than marijuana or heroin, with penalties if caught a misdemeanor criminal offense, at worst. So what if I get caught? What are they going to do to me? asked one mother. My son smokes, I smoke, and I wont be in jail but a minute, if that.

Hell, my family was smuggling drugs in to me so I can help support them. Now, they bring me tobacco instead. We are living better, and they dont have to worry about going to jail on a felony, bragged one prison friend of mine.

Lt. K. Calhoun, a correctional officer at Northern Sierra prison camp, told one reporter, Ive never seen anything like it. A pack of cigarettes sells for $125.00!

At 172,000 convicts, California has the largest prison population in our nation, filled with some of the most criminally sophisticated men and women in this country. Rather than limiting prisoners to smokeless tobacco products only, as most of the other states have done, state officials decided California would be one of only a few states to ban all tobacco products.

Were going to get ours, one gangster told me. Money is good.

Yeah, his comrade followed up. DOC knew what they were starting. All it has to do now to stop it is allow smokeless products like the other states do.

Tobacco will always be in prisons, just as there has always been every kind of illegal drug. There has been an increase in family members and friends willing to smuggle tobacco in, viewing it as a harmless pastime for incarcerated loved ones who have few to no other pleasures.

Inmates caught smoking risk little to no discipline. Most of the guards who once smoked here are now chewing tobacco (a violation) while others continue to smoke, discretely, when working. They are not going out of their way to enforce a law they view as ridiculous, and for the most part unenforceable.

Inmates on outside work crews pick up cigarette butts along the roadside and smuggle them back into the prisons where other inmates line up to buy the tobacco that has been culled. Brawls have broken out between different groups, and there have been a number of violent assaults as groups argued over who would get how much.

Recently, at the maximum-security prison at Pelican Bay, a convict who had been paroled hours earlier was found sneaking back onto prison grounds holding a pillowcase filled with 50 ounces of tobacco worth nearly $10,000. He had intended to throw it over the institutions fence where his associates were waiting to retrieve it.

Its becoming a better market than drugs, shared Correctional Officer Hawkes, an anti-gang coordinator at Pelican Bay. Actually, from where this writer sits, it already is.

A guard at Solano State Prison was discovered smuggling tobacco. He admitted earning several hundreds of dollars each week in this way. A prison cook at Folsom Prison chose to quit his job after plastic bags filled with tobacco were found in the pockets of his jacket. He admitted to earning approximately $1,000 a week. It was more than I was being paid by the DOC to cook for the inmates.

Another Folsom prison chef admitted she was being given $300 for every six-ounce can of rolling tobacco she smuggled into the prison. The convicts were having money orders mailed to her address.

I didnt see any harm in it, she said. Its not like I was bringing in the heroin and crystal meth these guys get.

How you going to stop it? questioned one guard. We cant keep narcotics out of here, and God knows we try. Personally, Im not busting an inmate smoking a cigarette in his cell calming his nerves.

Corrections has always gone overboard, as if to punish the inmates as much as possible, explained one of the doctors at Salinas Valley Prison. It appears the U.S. states that ban smoking but not chewing tobacco do not have the additional problems California has created for itself.

He is correct. Known for cutting off its nose to spite its face, the DOC has added additional and unnecessary woes to a system already burdened with trouble. As a result of its own actions, inmate violence has risen, which increases costs along with the dangers that prison guards face every day as different groups vie to control the lucrative black market created by making all tobacco products into contraband.

More Dispatches from The Pen

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