California’s Experiment With Cigarette Prohibition

In July 2005, California bannedall tobacco products from it’s state prison system. The results have been about what you’d expect:

There are no ifs, ands or butts about it: California’s ban on tobacco in prisons has produced a burgeoning black market behind bars, where a pack of smokes can fetch up to $125.

Prison officials who already have their hands full keeping drugs and weapons away from inmates now are spending time tracking down tobacco smugglers, some of them guards and other prison employees. Fights over tobacco have broken out — at one Northern California prison, guards had to use pepper spray to break up a brawl among 30 inmates.

The ban was put in place in July 2005 to improve work conditions and cut rising health care costs among inmates, but it also has led to an explosive growth of tobacco trafficking. The combination of potentially big profits and relatively light penalties are driving the surge.

In other words, a black market. And along with the black market, comes the corruption:

At the fortress-like Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, a felon sneaked back onto prison grounds hours after being paroled. He was found with a pillowcase of almost 50 ounces of rolling tobacco — worth thousands of dollars on the black market. The plan was to throw it over the facility’s fence.

“It’s almost becoming a better market than drugs,” said Devan Hawkes, an anti-gang officer at Pelican Bay. “A lot of people are trying to make money.”

And that includes prison workers.

Last year, a corrections officer was put on leave at California State Prison, Solano, for smuggling tobacco. The guard made several hundred dollars a week through tobacco, officials say.


“There’s quite a bit of money to be made,” said Lt. Tim Wamble, a Solano prison spokesman. “In a department this size, you’re gonna have people who will succumb to the temptation.”

The same thing happened with alcohol during prohibition, and it happens every day with the War On (Some) Drugs. One of these days, people will learn that you can ban products that people want but, in the end, you really can’t prevent them from getting those products if they really want them. Until then, we’ll have more nonsense like this.

H/T: Hit & Run

  • T F Stern

    You want something to worry about, try this on for size. If they can’t keep something as simple as cigarettes out of the prisons; what other items are getting inside? Weapons, hard drugs, or the simple answer, “What ever you can get on the outside”.