A no-smoking policy established last year in state prisons has made tobacco the hottest item in the prison black market.
Prices vary from prison to prison, but a regular cigarette can cost upward of $200. The cigarette is then cut up and rerolled into thin “pin joints” and sold for about $20 apiece.
Prison officials say demand for nicotine far outpaces drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine.
“Inmates are spending so much time with the introduction of tobacco products, they have forgotten about illicit drugs,” said Lloyd Copeland of the Columbia River Correctional Institution.
During a recent penitentiary shakedown, officers found the usual array of crude knives, home brew, marijuana and razor blades. They also found about three bags of tobacco.
“It’s the drug of choice in most institutions,” said Al Chandler, an assistant director of the Oregon Corrections Department.
Copeland said officials rarely get positive returns from random drug tests done on inmates since the non-smoking policy went into effect.
The lure of quick money also has resulted in the prosecution of a handful of corrections staff for smuggling tobacco into Salem area prisons, according to the Marion County district attorney’s office.
But even a handful is a big increase over past years, said Stephen Dingle, deputy district attorney.
“In eight years, I can think of two corrections officers I’ve prosecuted, convicted both of them for smuggling drugs into the institution,” Dingle said.
The non-smoking policy reflects changes in public attitudes toward tobacco and a ban on smoking in most public buildings, restaurants and offices.
Corrections officials say they also feared that an inmate living or working with a cellmate who smoked heavily would file a lawsuit against the department for being exposed to secondhand smoke.
“We had not had any lawsuits filed, but it was a matter of when,” Chandler said.
At the time smoking was banned at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, about 500 inmates were housed in non-smoking areas, at their own request, according to Brad Heath, security manager at the prison.
Chandler said going smoke-free also helps keep prisons cleaner and there is less danger of fire.
Still, the lure of tobacco is strong, despite its listing as contraband that could cost an inmate a fine, time in segregation or loss of privileges.
“We’ve got addicted smokers out there.” Copeland said.