Can You Have Cigarettes In Prison?

By Prison Insight Staff

Updated: February 19, 2020

Because the majority of people who are incarcerated have struggled with addiction to drugs and/or alcohol, an incredibly high number of prison inmates are smokers. Up until recently, people who went to prison still had access to tobacco products via the commissary. However, that has changed dramatically in the past few years.

I was incarcerated for four years in the state of Missouri, and during my time in prison, they still allowed inmates to purchase tobacco from the commissary and smoke on prison grounds. However, we were only allowed to smoke outside, and getting caught smoking inside was an easy way to get yourself in trouble.

Just a few months after my release in 2017, the state of Missouri removed all tobacco products from their prisons because of a lawsuit. An inmate serving a life sentence sued the state because of health risks related to secondhand smoke. Inmates were breaking the rules and smoking in their cells. That in turn caused the inmate to sue.

That inmate won his case, and that resulted in the removal of tobacco from all Missouri prisons. Missouri was actually one of the last states to ban smoking in their DOC facilities. Over the past three decades, all states have removed tobacco from their prisons. The Bureau of Prisons has also banned cigarettes from federal prisons.

That leads us to today’s blog post: can you have cigarettes in prison?

In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • Can you buy cigarettes in prison?
  • Was it a good idea to remove tobacco from prisons?

Can you buy cigarettes in prison?

At this point, the answer is no. You cannot buy cigarettes in prison. There are very few things that are universal in prison, but the removal of tobacco is one of the few things that all prisons in the United States have in common.

When I was incarcerated, inmates could buy tobacco pouches, rolling papers, filters, and rollers from the canteen. However, that’s not the case anymore. 

Now that all state and federal prisons have banned cigarettes, any tobacco that makes its way inside of prison walls comes from officers who may smuggle it in, among other deceitful ways. Inmates who are on work release might also be able to smuggle tobacco in from the outside.

The reason that officers and inmates take the risk of bringing in tobacco is because it is big business. A “pinner” is a tiny rolled cigarette that can bring as much as five bucks. If you can get your hands on a factory pack, we are talking hundreds of dollars.

Was it a good idea to remove tobacco from prisons?

From a health standpoint, of course it makes sense for the prisons to remove tobacco products. However, inmate health has never been a top priority at correctional facilities. When it comes down to it, allowing inmates to have cigarettes might actually be a good idea.

Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says that there have been unintended consequences from tobacco bans in prison. 

First of all, it’s a lesson in economics. When cigarettes are banned, they can sell for as much as $20 each, and packs can go as high as $200. This creates a major profit opportunity for prison gangs, and it causes corruption among the guards and prison employees.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any studies about the effect of smoking bans in prisons.

“There’s a real paucity of any serious research examining these prohibitions. Does it increase corruption and black markets? Do tobacco bans enrich prison gangs? Are there growing levels of violence associated with this? We don’t have solid answers on any of this stuff, and I think it’s a tragedy that there isn’t any good information,” says Nadelmann.

He adds that there has to be an incentive for people to want to know. Because one of the likely outcomes of the research could be that a smoking ban increases contraband and corruption, then most prisons won’t get on board with this type of research.

Nadelmann says that he can see all sorts of reasons why they would not want to come out with a report showing how prisons have been impacted by bans on tobacco. But he also says that if you’re in charge of a prison, wouldn’t you want to issue a report that produces that kind of information?

Do you think inmates should be allowed to smoke? Let us know in the comments below.


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