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Pennsylvania Prisoners’ Cigarette Stashes to Go Up in Smoke

by Douglas Ankney

Effective July 1, 2019, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) banned tobacco use by staff and prisoners at all state prisons. Announced by DOC Secretary John Wetzel in March, the new rule means that cigarettes, cigars, tobacco, tobacco substitutes, lighters, pipes, pipe cleaners, filters, rolling papers and rollers will be deemed contraband. 

The ban, which does not affect the use of DOC-approved e-cigarettes in designated areas, follows what Wetzel called the successful implementation of a similar ban at three state prisons and the Quehanna Boot Camp. Prisoners will be given access to smoking-cessation programs and free nicotine patches; other smoking-cessation products will be available to purchase.

Smoking rates for prisoners are about twice as high as in the general population. Pennsylvania prisoners spent $8 million on tobacco products in 2018 alone, and tobacco-related illnesses account for one-third of prisoner deaths.

Even though smoking is not permitted in cells, someone being housed with a smoker, they’re definitely going to benefit from tobacco-free,” stated DOC executive deputy secretary Shirley Moore Smeal.

In July 2018, prisoners were moved from SCI Graterford in Montgomery County to a new facility, SCI Phoenix, one of the three prisons that initially went tobacco-free. Before the ban eliminated the use of cigarettes as a form of prison currency, a $5 package of tobacco could be bartered for $60 worth of commissary goods, according to prisoner Freddie Nole.

“It was like they would do almost anything for a cigarette,” said Nole, who kept tobacco products for bartering purposes even though he doesn’t use them himself. “Stealing increased, the bartering of things increased. Guys went to the hole for smoking. Guards were going through it, too, because they couldn’t leave the premises to smoke.”

The prison economy has long been based on cigarettes and other forms of tobacco. Cigarettes are traded for food stolen from the kitchen. They are used to pay for drugs. Gambling debts are paid with tobacco. Jailhouse lawyers are often paid in cigarettes for drafting legal documents for other prisoners. If a prisoner’s “hussle” is something else, such as drawing pictures, making greeting cards or leather work, his fee is usually paid in cigarettes, too.

But the economies in Pennsylvania state prisons are unlikely to collapse after July 1. Instead, the standard form of payment will change to another commodity, such as food or postage stamps. In fact, that change began before the tobacco ban was announced. 

According to Abd’Allah Lateef, who spent three decades in prison and is now an organizer with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, back when a pack of cigarettes cost a dollar, it was the right price for a sandwich smuggled out of the kitchen or a load of freshly washed clothes. But now cigarettes start at $6.78 a pack – a steep price for prisoners whose pay scale tops out at $1.00 an hour. That’s one reason the currency has been shifting toward packaged candy, snacks, hygiene products and stamps. Another form of payment is picture tickets, which allow prisoners to send photos to loved ones.

However, Michael Gibson-Light, a sociologist who released an ethnographic study of one prison’s informal economy in May 2018, believes the switch from cigarettes as a form of currency is unrelated to the high cost of cigarettes and tobacco bans. At the prison he studied, ramen soup was the favored type of payment. [See: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.40]. He said prisoners at other facilities trade in honey buns or canned fish, and linked the use of such “currency” to a decline in the quality and quantity of prison meals.

“More and more, prisoners are expected to supplement [their meals] themselves, to buy food in the commissary,” he said. “To me, that became the key to the story: less about tobacco and more about the food.” 



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