LANCASTER, California: California's ban on tobacco in prisons has ignited a burgeoning black market behind bars, where a pack of cigarettes can fetch up to $125 (ˆ95).
Prison officials who already have their hands full keeping drugs and weapons away from inmates now are spending time tracking down tobacco smugglers, some of whom are guards and other prison employees. Fights over tobacco have erupted: at one Northern California prison, guards had to use pepper spray to break up a brawl among 30 inmates.
The ban was put in place in July 2005 to improve work conditions and cut rising health care costs among inmates, but it also has led to an explosive growth of tobacco trafficking. The combination of potentially big profits and relatively light penalties are driving the surge.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Lt. Kenny Calhoun of the Sierra Conservation Center, a northern California prison where officials report cigarette prices of $125 a pack.
Darren Cloyd is nearing the end of his 15-year sentence at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, for second-degree armed robbery. Before the ban he remembers paying about $10 (ˆ7.60) for a can with enough rolling tobacco for dozens of cigarettes. Now one contraband cigarette can cost that much.
"The black market is up here," said Cloyd, 37. "Everyone and their momma smoke."
California has the nation's largest prison population — 172,000 adult inmates. While many states limit tobacco use in prisons, California is among a few that ban all tobacco products.
Still, tobacco finds its way in.
Sometimes, family and friends secretly pass it to inmates during visits. Other times, inmates assigned to work crews off prison grounds arrange for cohorts outside the prison to leave stashes of tobacco at prearranged drop sites, then smuggle it behind bars.
A less-risky method: culling small amounts of tobacco from cigarette butts found along roadsides and other work sites.
At California Correctional Center in Lassen County, officials reported more than 60 tobacco offenses among inmate crews at the institution's work camps in December, Associate Warden Matt Mullin said. The same month, cigarettes triggered a brawl between 30 Hispanic and white inmates in a high-security yard. Follow-up interviews with inmates revealed the dispute was over control of tobacco sales.
At the fortress-like Pelican Bay State Prison, a felon sneaked back on to prison grounds hours after being paroled. He was found with a pillowcase of almost 50 ounces (1,420 grams) of rolling tobacco — worth thousands of dollars on the black market. The plan was to throw it over the facility's fence.
"It's almost becoming a better market than drugs," said Devan Hawkes, an anti-gang officer at Pelican Bay. "A lot of people are trying to make money."
That includes prison workers.
Last year, a guard was put on leave from California State Prison, Solano, for smuggling tobacco. The guard made several hundred dollars a week selling tobacco, officials say.
At Folsom State Prison, a cook quit last year after being caught walking onto prison grounds with plastic bags filled with rolling tobacco in his jacket. He told authorities he was earning more smuggling tobacco — up to $1,000 (ˆ760) a week — than he did in his day job.
"There's quite a bit of money to be made," said Lt. Tim Wamble, a Solano prison spokesman. "In a department this size you're gonna have people who will succumb to the temptation."
Unlike illegal drugs, which bring harsh penalties when smuggled into prison, punishments for inmates caught with tobacco usually range from a written warning to extra work duties. Prison employees can lose their jobs but there's almost no chance of a criminal prosecution.
Chuck Alexander, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said lawmakers should either roll back the prohibition or add stronger penalties.
"It didn't do anything but make (tobacco) a lucrative business," he said.