Let’s be honest, being a smoker in this day and age isn’t going to win you any popularity contests. But, in my prison experience, just about everyone was a smoker, including myself. When I was incarcerated, I was “lucky” enough to be incarcerated in a prison that allowed smoking, and you could buy tobacco products from the prison commissary.
However, not long after I was released in 2017, all prisons in the state of Missouri went smoke-free, thanks to a lawsuit from a non-smoking prisoner who was serving a life sentence without parole.
So, considering the fact that so many people who go to prison are smokers in the free world, many people want to know – can you smoke in prison?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
During the past couple of decades, prisons throughout the United States have become smoke-free facilities thanks to state laws or policy directives from the Department of Corrections and Bureau of Prisons.
As of 2019, the only state that hasn’t banned tobacco use in their facilities is Arizona. This means that forty-nine states (plus Puerto Rico) have banned tobacco use indoors in their prisons, and some have banned smoking on the grounds.
Of course, rules are made to be broken. And, just because inmates can no longer legally purchase tobacco products (cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes) from the prison commissary, it doesn’t mean they can’t get access to these items.
Inmates can get very creative when it comes to bringing tobacco into a prison. Some of the ways include bribing a correctional officer, having a friend or family member smuggle them into a visit, or inmates smuggling the products in themselves when they are being transferred between facilities.
Now, I’m not going to get specific about how to smuggle tobacco or where you have to put it so prison staff won’t find it, but people get extremely creative. I’ll just keep it at that.
State correctional facilities that are 100% smoke-free and tobacco-free indoors and outdoors on all grounds:
State correctional facilities that are 100% smoke-free indoors and outdoors on all grounds:
State correctional facilities that are 100% smoke-free and tobacco-free indoors:
State correctional facilities that are 100% smoke-free indoors:
Essentially every state prison has banned smoking indoors, so inmates can’t legally smoke in their cells. But, again, rules are made to be broken.
I received one rule violation during my four years in prison, and it was because I got caught smoking in my room. I lived in dormitory housing, so we didn’t have cells. Instead, we lived college-dorm style with six women in one small room.
The punishment I received was “ten days in white.” This meant that all of my personal belongings were locked up (my TV, personal clothing, cigarettes, etc…) and I was given a white prison uniform to wear for ten days, so every staff member knew I was being punished and on room restriction.
During those ten days I couldn’t leave my room unless I needed to use the bathroom or go to the chow hall. I wasn’t allowed to go to the rec yard or library, and I couldn’t use the phone. I had to stay in my room the entire ten days, and I had to bribe someone to go to the library and check out books for me to help pass the time.
This happened during my first six months of incarceration, so I got smart about smoking really quickly. I continued to smoke in my room the entire time I was locked up, but I figured out how to keep it hidden from the guards.
This is how it works in prison. Now that smoking is banned, inmates must keep all of their tobacco products hidden, and they have to be careful about using the products without getting caught. Otherwise, there will be punishment.
Tobacco products are considered contraband, and they are big business on a prison yard. If an inmate has access to tobacco, they can fill their locker with commissary items that people will trade in exchange for a few puffs.
But, if inmates are caught with tobacco products, they might get more than ten days in white. Depending on the facility, you can lose your phone privileges, visiting privileges, rec and library privileges, or maybe you might go to the hole (SHU – segregated housing unit).
However, people take the risk because there are so few ways to relax in prison, and if you can find something that makes you feel like you are in the free world for a few minutes, it’s worth it.
In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Prisons banned smoking in all federal correctional facilities unless it is part of an inmate’s approved religious activity. BOP staff and visitors can smoke in designated outdoor areas.
Just like state prisons, inmates in federal prisons also have an underground tobacco trade thanks to products being smuggled inside. But, inmates aren’t usually buying packs of cigarettes, they are buying individual cigarettes, also known as pinners.
Usually, these aren’t factory-rolled cigarettes. Instead, they are hand-rolled cigarettes made from a pouch of tobacco and a pack of papers. If rolling papers aren’t available, inmates will roll the tobacco in everything from the paper out of a book to the package paper around a roll of toilet paper.
Pinners are much skinnier than a factory-rolled cigarette, but they can bring big bucks. Often, these pinners are sold for as much as $5. But, how much it will set an inmate back depends on the facility. A pack of cigarettes can cost as much as $200, so it makes sense that inmates and guards are willing to take the risk because of the income.
There is also the issue of lighting the cigarette. Since the commissary doesn’t sell lighters or matches, inmates must get creative. Some use an electrical outlet, while others can make a match with batteries and a strip of foil.
I won’t give a step-by-step tutorial on how to create a flame. Just know that in prison, necessity is the mother of invention.
The same rules applies with e-cigarettes and vapes. These products have been banned just like traditional tobacco products. There are still some county jails that do allow tobacco, e-cigarettes, and/or vapes, but they are few and far between.
Just like tobacco, inmates can smuggle in vaping products. They are prohibited, but can be accessed on the black market.
Prohibition behind bars is the same as prohibition in the free world – it doesn’t eliminate the use of the product. Instead, it puts it under the control of gangs (in the free world, cartels and organized crime syndicates take over the black market for prohibited products). In prison, gangs are often the ones who control the tobacco trade, which can make smoking even more dangerous.
For all intents and purposes, smoking is banned in correctional facilities in the United States. But, that doesn’t mean inmates can’t get access to tobacco products if they have the money and are willing to take the risk.
The interesting thing about smoking bans in prisons is that it could be related to the increase of violence. And, it definitely increases the chances for corruption among prison guards.
A smoking ban in prison isn’t for health purposes – the healthcare in prisons is extremely poor. So, what is the benefit of banning tobacco use in prisons? Considering the vast majority of inmates are smokers, wouldn’t legal tobacco use behind bars help keep the peace and reduce corruption?
Do you think smoking should be banned in prisons? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation: 100% Smoke-free and Tobacco-Free Correctional Facilities http://no-smoke.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/100smokefreeprisons.pdf The Case for Smoking In Prison https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/07/01/the-case-for-smoking-in-prison
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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