Smoking in Prison
Many criminal defendants who are facing a prison sentence are addicted to cigarettes. As such, we often get asked the question, “Can you smoke in prison?”
By and large most U.S. prison systems, along with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have banned inmates from using tobacco products. This ban includes cigarettes, smokeless tobacco (e.g., chew and dip), and e-cigarettes. While there are a few exceptions (most notably some county jails seem to be behind the times), this is the general rule. Inmates caught smoking in a prison system where such conduct is prohibited will receive a disciplinary incident report and be subject to applicable sanctions. This is the official position.
The unofficial position is a bit different. For example, while in the Federal Bureau of Prisons inmates are not permitted to smoke, there is a healthy underground trade in tobacco products. While you may not see e-cigarettes for sale on the yard, cigarettes are common . . . and they are big business.
Contraband cigarettes are usually not sold by the pack, but by the individual cigarette or “pinner” — which consists of a very small amount of tobacco, such as a fifth or sixth of a cigarette, rolled in the paper covering that comes with toilet paper. While a pinner typically costs $5, a whole cigarette can run between $15 and $20. A pack will set a prisoner back between $200 and $300, though this is largely dependent upon the supply and demand economics at the specific prison facility.
Prisons that don’t allow smoking also don’t sell lighters or matches. As such, inmates need to secure their own fire sources. A typical fire source consists of two AA batteries and a strip of foil from a Ramen Noodle Soup packet. The inmate first scratches paint off of a piece of metal such as their desk or window frame. With this metal exposed, they then place the two batteries (one positive side up and the other negative side up) on the metal. Then they cut the strip of foil in half and hold down the two pieces of foil on the terminals. When the foil touches in the center a flame will appear. Prisoners usually touch toilet paper to this to light, and then light their cigarette or pinner off of this flame.
This leads to the next question. How do inmates get cigarettes in the first place? Well, that’s simple: the guards. While it’s not uncommon to see a guard giving a single cigarette to a favored prisoner, this is arguably how the minority of tobacco makes its way into prison facilities. A much more common way is through guards who are paid off by prison gangs. Whether they are gang members before they apply for employment with prison systems or if they are turned once they become prison guards, they are the ones to smuggle cigarettes in. With packs of cigarettes fetching $200 to $300, it’s not hard to see how this can add up to substantial income. Even if only a pack is smuggled in a day this equates to $1,000 to $1,500 in a typical five day week, a sum some find a hard time ignoring.
While prisoners regularly get in significant trouble for being caught with tobacco, smoking in prisons where tobacco has been banned is commonplace. So too is smoking marijuana, shooting heroin, and even taking Subboxone. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has been suffering from a rash of Subboxone overdoses in recent years. Where there is a will, there is a way.
Contact us for more information on smoking in prison.