Washington state banned public smoking on December 8, 2005. The Washington State Department of Corrections (WDOC), however, had been preparing for the day since 1999. That’s when the rumors had started that we’d be going smoke-free. Not just prisoners—staff, too.
In 2000, WDOC opened Stafford Creek Corrections Center and designated it the state’s first non-smoking prison. When I arrived at there in 2002, the top contraband on the compound was cigarettes.
By the time the ban appeared as promised, prisoners had been stockpiling tobacco for about six years. It was normal to see cells lined with 12 x 12 x 18 cardboard boxes, all filled with rolling tobacco. But after 2005 all our tobacco products were confiscated, even though the law didn’t explicitly require this.
The moment that legal routes to cigarettes were eliminated, an illicit market flooded in. Prisoners with the resources to bring in tobacco would do so, and prisoners without resources would buy it on credit. Debts mounted. Some people pay their debts with sex work. Some are unable to pay, and become targets for violence. Washington’s smoking ban made the community I live in less safe. Nicotine vapes, which are much less harmful than cigarettes, were never available in the first place.
At first, the corrections officers (COs) didn’t enforce the ban because they didn’t like it any more than we did. In some state prison systems, COs are still allowed to smoke; they just have to do it out on the grounds rather than inside the buildings. In WDOC, staff would in those early days have to leave the premises entirely in order to legally smoke during their smoke breaks. Department policy still upholds this, but in reality most COs were soon mandated to take their smoke breaks at their posts. That was the last of the smoking.
The void left by cigarettes has been filled by synthetic cannabinoids.
Many COs switched to chewing tobacco, of which they’re allowed one can each while on the premises. Prisoners don’t have this luxury, and have to make do with what they can pick up off the ground after the COs spit it out. This is broadly considered preferable to bringing in tobacco, because introducing contraband—no matter what it is—can mean new criminal charges. Picking up used chew, on the other hand, is punishable as merely an infraction.
Sometimes the used chew can even be dried out and smoked. People who miss cigarettes often miss not just the nicotine, but the physical process of smoking something. More than half the prisoners here who smoked cigarettes before they were incarcerated—especially those coming from other facilities where cigarettes may have been more accessible—end up smoking something else instead.
The void left by cigarettes has been filled by a new synthetic cannabinoid market. Spice, as it’s called here, skyrocketed in popularity about a decade ago. Some people like it; others like that the COs didn’t know what regulations to apply or how to test for it. Everyone liked having something to smoke.
At Stafford Creek, at least one person “bugged out” each day from the unpredictable effects. Many of them wouldn’t be using spice at all if they were allowed cigarettes.
The only prisoners who really have access to cigarettes are the ones who are near the end of their sentences and have been sent to work camp. These are the work details that take them outside the grounds—firefighting, flood work, road crews, fairgrounds cleanup. Camp prisons are the lowest-security facilities. When the prisoners housed there return for the night, they’re often caught with the cigarettes they brought back from their day jobs. They lose their work detail, the “good behavior” time they’d accrued, and are shipped back to a higher-security facility.
When staff don’t have tobacco as an outlet, they take out their frustrations on us.
WDOC is currently on a hiring spree. The pandemic caused a mass exodus of COs, and we’ve been understaffed ever since.
When the new recruits come through for training, we can smell the tobacco from the cigarettes or the sweet scent of the vapes they still use off-duty. These COs, many in their late teens or early 20s, are beginning their careers in an environment that looks nothing like it did before the pandemic. The veteran staff are burned out. The prisoners are less compliant. Tempers are shorter. Arguments arise more quickly.
Prisoners here are always in a bad mood; it’s prison. But COs are only sometimes in a bad mood, and those times tend to be when they’ve run out of chew. I’ve seen arguments between guards start when one asks a colleague for a dip and is denied. I’ve also seen guards walk over to an agitated colleague and offer a dip just to shut them up.
Nicotine is a handy outlet for the stress and tension that all staff and prisoners feel from the looming specter of violence we all face at all times. When staff don’t have that outlet, they take out their frustrations on us. The heightened level of day-to-day stress is taking a toll on all of us.
Washington State Department of Corrections actually used to issue prisoners free tobacco.
Washington rolled out restrictions for vapes in 2016 and banned flavors in 2019, but the state doesn’t ban vaping in public places the way it does smoking combustible cigarettes. WDOC, however, does not distinguish between the two. It prohibits vaping the exact same way it prohibits smoking.
Allowing prisoners to vape would go beyond just tobacco harm reduction. It would be a form of violence harm reduction. It would be harm reduction for synthetic cannabinoid use. It would reduce contraband, and by extension reduce the harms that come from further interaction with the criminal-legal system. It would make prisoner-guard interactions more functional and less dangerous.
Even if lawmakers don’t care about any of that, they’d at least be able to tax it.
In the early ’90s, before I entered the system, WDOC actually used to issue prisoners free tobacco. It would be delivered along with the correspondence materials like paper and envelopes; matchbooks too. The matchbooks continued for another decade, up until the smoking ban finally went into effect. They were great for sharpening the DIY syringes used here, and without them people will use less-effective surfaces like the floor and suffer more abscesses as a result.
There can be consequences for seeking medical care for injection infections, and so most people don’t. If we can’t smoke cigarettes, and we can’t vape, they could at least give us the matchbooks back.