How Prison Smoking Bans Created a Health Crisis

    When I first entered Washington State Department of Corrections custody in 1995, the currency was still cigarettes. In any cashless economy the cash has been replaced by something, and prisons usually have a fixed-value item that’s the obvious choice; ramen soups, for example. Stamps used to be a common one, and are banned in many prisons for this reason.

    Back in the 1990s we were still allowed to have tobacco products. Cigarettes were our main currency; rolling tobacco worked, too. Scenes in movies like Papillon, The Great Escape or Cool Hand Luke where prisoners are trading a pack of smokes are pretty accurate—we exchanged them for whatever we needed. For a while corn dogs were the best meal we got at chow, so I used to pay people a 42-cent box of Top for their tray of two corn dogs. One time I got taken to the hole for having too many corn dogs.

    In 2004, Washington State prisons banned smoking, as prison systems across the country were doing around that time. Tobacco products went from being currency to being contraband.

    Prison contraband markets have always included things that are legal on the outside. Clothes. Porn. Reading material. Writing material. Food. But pushing tobacco from licit good to banned substance made the market more predatory, in a way that hasn’t happened before or since.

    After 2004, the main currency in Washington State prisons became debt.

    Prisons contain disproportionate numbers of people who smoke. But tons of people who smoke cigarettes daily have still never used an illicit drug in their life, or at least not an addictive one. When they come to prison, they become contraband drug users overnight. They have no experience with drug sellers and no understanding of how the market works, but still think of cigarettes as no big deal.

    Even when tobacco was currency, that was only for small purchases. After 2004, the currency that Washington State prisoners used for anything large became the main currency for all contraband: debt.

    The next five years or so were ugly. Tobacco-only customers were easy targets, not just for spontaneous price hikes but for debt traps that were laid out for them weeks or months before they realized what was happening.

    Outside prison, people who sell drugs don’t have much reason to do business with people who can’t pay. But in prison, where you can’t skip out on your tab, they’re looking to operate on credit.  Like Wimpy said in the Popeye cartoons: “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!” Predatory mortgage lenders on the outside do the same thing.



    It usually went like this: Unsuspecting tobacco users are offered a friendly deal, and then one day if it happens that they can’t pay for the product, well, that’s okay—they can have it on credit. Maybe they clear a little of what they owe the next time around, but gradually the debt stacks up and the creditor won’t say nothing about it.

    People are aware they have some debt. But they often don’t realize how much, and don’t think it’s all that serious anyway; it’s just cigarettes, right? So they aren’t expecting it when suddenly the creditor shows up to collect.

    They can’t pay it all right then? Well, that’s okay. They don’t have to get hurt; they can work it off instead.

    Maybe they have a kitchen assignment where they’re in a position to steal yeast, a key ingredient in the jack that everyone wants to drink. Or they might be young and pretty, and someone wants to get to know them better. Or their spouse comes into the visit room every weekend, and the creditor has a couple balloons of fentanyl to bring in. They don’t want their spouse involved? Well, that’s okay, they can figure out another way. But now instead of two balloons, it’s four.

    Unlike traditional currency, debt has no fixed value. Whether a given favor is worth $10 versus $20 depends on the debtor’s ability to pay. Sex favors tend to be valued higher. Acts of violence—often against other people in debt—tend to be cheaper.

    Paying off debt is just as dangerous as taking it on.

    For many, this becomes a form of indentured servitude that lasts the duration of their sentence; if they’re transferred, their debt will be transferred with them. Debt is frequently sold. People wake up one day to find that someone new owns their debt now; maybe someone who’ll go further to collect than the original creditor was willing to.

    Paying it off is just as dangerous as taking it on it the first place. It requires breaking policy, breaking the law, risking loss of “good time” for good behavior and often catching new charges.

    Debt is about power. The more you own, the more power you have. Once people realized how much power it gave them, once the culture of violence and predatory lending took hold, the market never went back to the way it was. Before the tobacco bans, debt was something people got out of. Now, it’s something they exist with.

    Though I never had a role in the tobacco debt economy, I’ve been here long enough to see tobacco prohibition do essentially the opposite of what it was supposed to do. It has not saved lives. It hasn’t protected the health of the prisoner population, or made warehousing us less expensive. It makes the prison system unequivocally more violent, and keeps more people incarcerated for longer.

    And it’s the reason that today the market is dominated by synthetic cannabinoids, AKA “Spice.” Cigarettes are still prominent contraband at the work-release facilities, which are lower-security, but Spice is cheaper and easier to smuggle into prisons. Once it came onto the scene about a decade ago, a lot of people started buying it because they just missed having something to smoke. Spice is safer for them to buy than tobacco.



    Read Part 2 of this story here

    Top photograph via Anonymous. Inset graphic via United States Department of Energy.

    • Jonathan covers harm reduction and re-entry. He’s incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center, where he’s a Teacher’s Assistant for re-entry workshops and trains peer educators in HIV and hepatitis C harm reduction. His writing has been published by the AppealTruthoutJewish Currents and the Seattle Journal of Social Justice. His Washington State Department of Corrections ID is #716850, and until WDOC corrects a 29-year-old paperwork error his name in Securus is “Jonathon.”

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