Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) enacted a smoking and tobacco product ban in 2010. According to MDOC officials, the reversal seeks to remedy some unintended consequences of the decade-long edict. Prisoners “who smoke are smoking anyway,” said MDOC Commissioner Burl Cain, “but they’re having to smuggle in tobacco to do it, which is illegal, and it’s even more illegal because state law prohibits smoking in state buildings.”
The corruption associated with the smoking ban is staggering. In December 2019 alone, over 20 pounds of tobacco were seized by officials at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution. On the prison’s “black market,” contraband tobacco can allegedly be bought by prisoners for $15 a pound and sold for as high as $500. According to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, one prisoner reported making $8,000 a day selling tobacco.
Such lucrative margins can be too much to resist, especially for MDOC staff who can easily double their roughly $26,000 a year salary by trafficking tobacco. Moving tobacco can also lead guards to bringing in other illegal items like cellphones and alcohol, putting their freedom and jobs at risk. Prisoners can jeopardize their release dates and even face free world charges that could lengthen their sentences.
The move to make tobacco legal, according to one prisoner, could reduce corruption by 80%. Commissioner Cain pointed out a further benefit to lifting the smoking ban: raising much needed tax revenue. MDOC plans to use the money from tobacco sales in commissaries to fund G.E.D. programs, vocational schools, and college level classes, as well as funding community reentry programs.
The health concerns, however, may outweigh the possible benefits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 41,000 people die from second-hand smoke each year. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners exposed to second-hand smoke constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Prisons and jails across the country subsequently enacted smoking bans. Sandra Shelson, executive director of The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, helped to establish smoking bans not only in MDOC’s prisons but in convenience stores and inside other buildings that adversely affect the health of Mississippians. She believes that MDOC’s decision to reinstate smoking takes “a step backwards.”
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