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November 24, 2017

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Lights out in the big house

Inmate blowback, black market feared when state goes tobaccoless

Prediction: July 1, 2009, is going to be a nasty day for thousands of Nevada residents.

That’s the day the Nevada Department of Corrections bans all tobacco products, on all department grounds, for inmates and corrections officers alike.

About 70 percent of inmates everywhere smoke. If that rate holds true in Nevada, then about 9,100 of our felons are addicted to nicotine. So are a few hundred of their keepers, by the way. Cigarette smoking is limited to outdoor areas in Nevada’s detention facilities — prisons, work camps. Chewing tobacco can be used inside them, except where food is prepared and served.

With the forthcoming ban, the prison system is getting in line with the statewide movement toward more limits on smoking, spokeswoman Suzanne Pardee said. It is also hoping to reduce high health care costs that come with the treatment of tobacco-related ailments. This is a dance Nevada has come to late. A 2007 study found the state was one of only 20 without a total smoking ban in prisons.

But there’s a flip side to banning tobacco behind bars. Foremost is the concern that inmates will become agitated and lash out. They were told a year ago the ban was coming and still have six months to steel themselves, but that doesn’t mean inmates are trying to taper off their smoking habits. State prison guard Kevin Ranft, for one, said he isn’t aware of any inmate who is trying hard to quit.

As a regional vice president for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 4041 — the union that represents state prison guards — Ranft is worried about what’s going to happen when thousands of felons simultaneously suffer withdrawal.

“Our biggest fear is inmates acting out,” he said. “There is a safety and security risk that we feel the department should really evaluate.”

Ranft says his union would like to see the prison system offer smoking cessation classes to inmates, something Pardee says the administration is working on. Pardee knew of no plans to add additional staff on July 1, however. Nor will the corrections department be handing out nicotine patches or tobacco-replacement gum.

Perhaps this is because of lessons learned elsewhere: When inmates were provided patches in Alberta, Canada, for example, news reports revealed they devised ways to smoke the chemicals inside.

But the immediate risk of cranky cold-turkey inmates may pale in the face of a longer-term problem: The birth of a black market.

When California banned all tobacco in its correctional facilities three years ago, reports of cigarette smuggling jumped. So did the price of tobacco behind bars. In 2007, the Associated Press reported that an illicit pack of cigarettes was selling for $125 in Northern California prisons. A can of tobacco worth $10 on the streets, it was reported, could be turned into hundreds of dollars worth of individual cigarettes behind bars.

Tobacco serves a number of functions in prison. It is used as a “surrogate currency, a means of social control, as a symbol of freedom in a group with few rights and privileges, a stress reliever and as a social lubricant,” according to a small Australian study that weighed the pros and cons of prison tobacco bans.

With a black market come other problems. In California, prison staff members were caught supplementing their salaries by smuggling tobacco to inmates. At Folsom State Prison, a cook told authorities he was earning roughly $1,000 a week smuggling tobacco behind bars, the Associated Press reported. His illegal enterprise was more lucrative than his day job. In another instance, an inmate paroled from California’s Pelican Bay prison was discovered back on prison grounds hours after his release carrying a pillowcase stuffed with 50 ounces of rolling tobacco. His plan, it was reported, was to throw the stash, worth thousands, over a fence to an inmate.

Despite everybody’s best efforts, tobacco will find its way behind bars after the ban. Inmates already secretly smoke cigarettes inside their cells despite rules against it. The problem is so prevalent that guards do not have enough isolation cells for all the rule-breakers and must settle for writing them up and giving them extra work duties.

Though Ranft is confident in his fellow guards’ ability to stop visitors from smuggling in contraband tobacco, no system is air tight.

“They’ll try to find ways to manipulate the system until the tobacco runs dry,” Ranft said.

There’s not much to buy behind bars, either, so tobacco sales are big business — about 9 percent of total canteen sales, or just over $1 million annually, Pardee said. Tobacco goods sell for $5 to $7 each, depending on the product. The profit from canteen sales is transferred to the inmate welfare fund, which pays for inmate programs, recreation equipment and similar expenditures, Pardee said. Some critics of tobacco bans have suggested this financial loss could hurt inmates, but the prison administration figures if inmates can’t spend the money on tobacco, they’ll spend it on something else at the canteen, so the welfare fund won’t suffer much, if at all.

But the effect on black market profits also remains to be seen. Inmates in other states have been known to fight over control of illegal tobacco sales — just another reason the prison system better have a good reason for enforcing the total ban, said Gary Peck, director of the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union.

“When these kinds of policies are implemented, what ends up happening is that inmates create an underground market, and with an underground market, come all the problems you associate — graft, corruption, violence,” he said. “There are lots of ways they could regulate the use of tobacco products without a smoking ban.”

These regulations are a far cry from earlier prison policy. A 1986 study revealed that more than half of all prisons were providing inmates tobacco free of charge, and almost none of those prisons provided inmates with smoke-free living quarters. Today, a study conducted by researchers at the Ohio State University College of Public Health found that American prisons have almost completely reversed their tobacco policies — no prisoner was being given free tobacco in 2007, yet 96 percent were offered smoke-free living areas.

Still, exactly what Nevada’s felons will do when they are no longer allowed to chew tobacco or smoke in the prison yard is anyone’s guess.

In May, the United Kingdom’s Observer newspaper reported that inmates at a prison in the Isle of Man went on a hunger strike after the announcement of a plan to go smoke-free. The paper also reported that “some have resorted to smoking dried-out tea bags wrapped in pages of the Bible.”

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