The first time the Georgia Department of Corrections tried to go tobacco-free was 1994. In the mid-’90s it was trendy to express concern that exposing non-smoking prisoners to secondhand smoke violated their Eighth Amendment rights, never mind how the smoking majority of us felt about it.
Weighing the future prospect of health care savings against the immediate prospect that cigarette-deprived prisoners would riot or go on strike, some wardens never removed any tobacco products from the commissary. Some took out just the cigarettes and left smokeless tobacco available. Some immediately banned all tobacco products from being sold or possessed—not including the corrections officers (COs), who were still permitted to bring cigarettes into the workplace and smoke outside.
At facilities where I’ve been held, prisoners could get 14-28 days in isolation plus “loss of privileges” for being caught with a single cigarette, though usually that was when they caught you with a whole pack or this wasn’t your first time. For three decades, I’ve watched the GDC smoking bans do nothing but fail, and I’ve made enough money off the prison tobacco economy that I don’t even bother with it anymore.
Banning a drug supply inevitably creates an illicit market, but there’s nothing quite like doing this inside a gated community; competition has already been eliminated. During the night shifts, with the wardens gone and the supervisors’ visibility limited, it was a matter of how many cartons COs could fit in their trunk. By 1995, every car in the parking lot was new.
Everyone is buying, selling, saving, hustling, begging, stealing, but only a few are smoking as much as they wish they could.
The life cycle of a prison cigarette has several stages, each of which increases the price, decreases the quantity of tobacco, or both. In the mid-’90s, a pack of Marlboros or Newports went for about $2 in the outside world. COs would buy a carton—10 packs—for $16 at the convenience store down the road, open it up and sell each pack for $10. Once introduced into the prison ecosystem this way, each pack would in turn be opened up and each of its 20 cigarettes sold for $1. Then the $1 loosies would be resold for $2, or broken down and rerolled into three smaller, filterless cigs, which still went for $1 each.
As bills under $10 were scarce and all cash was considered contraband anyway, most of these transactions involved commissary items worth the equivalent dollar amounts rather than actual money. Postage stamps; ramen soups; toiletries; coffee. When someone accumulated too much of an item, they’d sell it to the guys who’d had their commissary “privileges” taken away.
Today, a 0.65 oz pack of loose tobacco—enough for 20 commercial cigarettes, or 30 or 40 prison cigarettes—or an equivalent pouch of smokeless tobacco goes for between $50 and $100. Those who can afford to buy in bulk will get a can with 10 times that amount, paying up to $400. Five cans for $1,250. If the supply is restricted, we pay more.
Scales aren’t readily accessible, so the de facto units of measurement here are cups and tubes. A cup is the 30ml plastic shot glass they give us our pills in at the nurses’ window. A tube is the cardboard from a roll of toilet paper. Five cups equals one tube. Ten tubes equals one can.
But these are loose fills, lightly shaken in without compaction, and tobacco is fragile. Each time you handle it, it crumbles a little more. An entire pack’s worth will disappear from a can just from the repackaging and reselling alone. Thus in times of drought, the measure of a tube drops from five cups to four. The drought continues, and soon people are pooling their money on tubes so they can each get a cup out of it for $10 because cups themselves are going for $25.
Everyone is buying, selling, saving, hustling, begging, stealing, but in my current camp of 1,100 prisoners only a handful are smoking as much as they wish they could. Most can only get four, maybe six cigarettes a day.
This time around, When I heard “tobacco free” I knew what to do.
On December 15, 1995, “tough on crime” Governor Zell Miller appointed GDC’s new commissioner: Wayne Garner, a man whose previous jobs included state senator, parole board chair and undertaker.
Garner’s reign is remembered for his declaration that many of Georgia’s prisoners “ain’t fit to kill” and for his infamous “tactical squads.” Their weekly shakedowns of different facilities across the state were so violent that even GDC staff would later testify on prisoners’ behalf in some of the lawsuits that emerged over the years. Garner reportedly oversaw the beatings of handcuffed prisoners himself, after which he’d take the guards out to dinner.
Once in office, Garner promptly rescinded the smoking ban, lamenting the “absolute nightmare” it had created. He decided that the equivalent in health care savings would be achieved by forcing all prisoners to walk four miles a day. Tobacco products were back in the commissaries.
In 2010, GDC started taking tobacco back out of the commissaries. By then, pressure to avoid secondhand smoke lawsuits had mounted, as had pressure to save taxpayers’ dollars on prisoner health care. COs were banned from smoking inside the fences this time, but that was all. Again, the parking lot began to fill up with new cars. GDC did not respond to Filter’s request for comment.
I’ve been incarcerated in Georgia continuously for more than 31 years, across more than a dozen of its prisons. Having seen what happened in the ’90s, when I heard “tobacco free” in 2010 I knew what to do. I bought up all I could. It was like getting in on Tesla while your neighbors and coworkers thought electric cars were just little remote-controlled toys. The day our commissary stopped selling cigarettes, I sold 10 packs at $35 each. A week later the price was $50, where it leveled off for several years.
Personally, I love it when the warden gets up from their desk and knocks off one of the CO suppliers. Price of a pack jumps up to $100.
Though the pandemic has allowed COs to inflate the price of contraband wildly across the United States, in my current facility at least, the first few months of COVID actually caused cigarette prices to drop. The night shifts had only two or three employees showing up to work, and understaffing this severe meant COs no longer had a lock on the supply—tobacco packages were just being thrown in over the fences. Monday mornings, you’d find the maintenance crews going around the perimeter, closing up holes in the inner fencing where prisoners had cut it to retrieve packages that had fallen short.
Personally, I love it when the warden gets up from their desk and knocks off one of the CO suppliers. Price of a pack jumps up to $100. And not for a full 0.65 oz can either; maybe two-thirds that.
Money. Money for everyone. Groups of street kids who the year before had been cooking three ramen soups in a bowl so five of them could eat, now with a bacon cheeseburger each, purchased from staff dining. They’d kill for me if I asked them. They love me, as long as the money’s still coming in. They’ll eat me if the times get hard.
Before cigarettes were removed from commissary, the poorest among us, and the least mentally and physically capable, would for brief moments have the edges of their suffering softened when someone “blessed them” with a quarter-inch butt. They’d inhale until they’d blackened and burned their fingertips with the very last ash. Now, no one has even that to spare for them. What the government removed from the prisons was charity.
Though I accept a consultation fee here and there, for the most part I’ve retired from the prison tobacco industry. A cousin taught me how to watch the stock market on TV and play it from my phone. I’m not developing any new importers, just letting the space I leave fill naturally, the same way it would if I died.
Tobacco harm reduction might be a hot topic in the outside world, but you won’t find the idea getting much traction in here.
Even if Stacey Abrams is elected governor, there’ll be another Wayne Garner overseeing GDC soon enough. There are twice as many prisoners inside its facilities now.
Tobacco harm reduction might be a hot topic in the outside world, but you won’t find the idea getting much traction in here. How do you make money from that? The occasional vape makes its way in if a CO is so inclined, but there’s no real market for them because they can’t be broken down and subsequently marked up for resale. They’re a novelty item. A few use smokeless tobacco.
But it’s cigarettes that are the oil in the prison economy. The smart play would be for the governor to set their office up as the OPEC of tobacco, so GDC controls the flow, the price, the profit. Regulate the market instead of handing it over to the COs and us.
That’ll never happen, though. It’d require the government to admit that it made a fundamental misstep, zigged when it should have zagged. That it should have just let the smokers buy smokes, rather than making prison’s most popular addictive substance illegal to just prisoners specifically. It could have been funneling our cash back into the GDC budget via commissary sales this whole time, instead of straight into COs’ pockets—and mine. Thanks for that, though. Laughing on my way to the bank.
Photograph by SirGrok via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.5