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"The prisoners who pay $125 a pack to beat smoking ban" by Chris Ayers, The Times (of London)

21st February 2007

California is being urged to drop or overhaul its no-smoking policy in prisons after black market prices in jail reached $125 (£64) for a packet, sparking riots and a booming trade that is diverting warders from their duties.

The situation has become so bad that a prisoner at the Pelican Bay State Prison was found sneaking back on to prison grounds only hours after being released, carrying a pillowcase stuffed with 50oz (1.5kg) of rolling tobacco.

A cook at Folsom State Prison has been forced to resign after being caught with plastic bags filled with rolling tobacco. He told the authorities that he was earning $1,000 a week from tobacco sales, much more than he did in his day job.

"It's almost becoming a better market than drugs," said Devan Hawkes, an antigang officer at Pelican Bay. "A lot of people are trying to make money."

Smoking was banned in Californian prisons in 2005, with the aim of improving work conditions and curbing rising healthcare costs.

Some found it ironic that the blanket rule would affect even Death Row inmates. Warders complained that their own guilty pleasure was being denied.

Now the warders are saying that their time is being wasted trying to break tobacco-smuggling rings when they should be focused on more important matters such as keeping drugs and firearms out of jails. Pepper spray was used at a facility in Northern California recently, when a fight over the control of black-market tobacco sales broke out between white and Hispanic inmates.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Lieutenant Kenny Calhoun, of the Sierra Conservation Centre, the California prison where the $125 packet prices were reported, making tobaccco almost as valuable, per ounce, as caviar.

So far the penalties against smuggling tobacco into prisons remain relatively light: inmates can get away with a written warning or extra work duties, while prison employees lose their jobs, but are rarely prosecuted. The profits, however, can be enormous.

Chuck Alexander, executive vice-president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, is calling on politicians to either rethink the ban or introduce stronger penalties. He says that the policy has been a disaster.

"It didn't do anything but make [tobacco] a lucrative business," he said.

California has the largest prison population in the US, with 172,000 adult inmates, and is among only a few states that bans all tobacco products. But tobacco has a knack of penetrating even the tightest security. Warders say that family and friends pass it secretly to inmates during visits. Other inmates assigned to work on the prison grounds arrange for cohorts outside the prison to leave stashes of tobacco at prearranged drop sites.

© Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd

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