“Where I’m at, you rarely see real tobacco anymore,” Robert Rosso, who’s doing life in the feds for a meth conspiracy, told VICE. “It’s nearly all used chewing tobacco, taken out of the officer’s spit jar, dried out in a microwave, and rolled up with toilet paper wrapping.”
Andre Cooper, a man serving three life sentences in Maryland for racketeering, drug dealing, and homicide, expanded on the subject. “Now, smoking chewed-up tobacco is the norm. And this is not just any chewed up tobacco. It’s spit infused chewing tobacco that a BOP Officer has spat out of their mouth on the ground or in the trash or in a soda bottle. Yes, prisoners are smoking this stuff that's filled with all types of germs and diseases from the original officer who spat it out of their mouth. Unbelievable, right?” One chew smoker told Cooper: “It’s all we got right now, so I'm a smoke it.”
Incredibly, this unhealthy practice has also become a lucrative business. A whole 16oz soda bottle filled with spit and chewed up tobacco can get a prisoner close to a hundred books of stamps. That works out to $7 dollars for 20 stamps (a book) on the prison black market. Prison gangs are actually beefing in prison right now over who controls the “chew” trade as they call it.
It’s more common for prison guards to be allowed tobacco on the wing than prisoners, hence the trade in what is also called “cop spit”. Some prisons have banned staff use of tobacco, but others permit it in designated areas. According to the prisoners VICE spoke to, only one in ten inmates smokes nowadays. Not because they don’t want to, but because tobacco is so expensive and hard to find. They are only resorting to chew tobacco because there is a lack of tobacco in these prisons and it is expensive if there at all due to the bans.
“Prisoners can’t smoke cigarettes, but we have to tolerate smelling the smoke from C/Os who are smoking right in front of us.” Jeremy Fontanez, who’s serving a life sentence for murder and other crimes in West Virginia, told VICE. “These same C/Os [have the nerve to] write us an infraction for possession of tobacco.” Inmates caught smoking in a prison system where such conduct is prohibited will receive a disciplinary incident report and be subject to applicable sanctions. Sanctions include loss of phone, commissary, visiting privileges, and hole time.
“Guys going crazy to smoke cop spit,” said Slim, who’s doing time on a gun charge. “And many say it's way stronger than regular cigarette tobacco. Personally, I think it's disgusting. And if the inmates have to go tobacco-free, why shouldn’t the cops? All the BOP has done is create a new, thriving black market."
In a perfect world, Dope Boy, who’s doing time for drugs, “wouldn’t have to smoke this shit,” he says. “But I don’t live in no perfect world. I’ve been smoking since I was a kid and prison ain’t gonna stop me.” And nobody inside the belly of the beast is really worrying about the long term consequences of smoking this stuff.
The tobacco ban hurts prisoners, Fontanez insisted. “Especially those who have lengthy sentences. Prisoners look for ways to cope, cigarettes used to allow us an outlet, now that outlet has been cut off. Plus guys who can't afford the black market prices get themselves in debt trying to satisfy that urge, the stress of being in debt builds up. [It’s crazy] just to relieve the stress of wanting a cigarette.”
The slow spread of tobacco bans in the US prison system - the 27 states that have not banned smoking in jails all have tight restrictions on its use - began over a quarter of a century ago. In 1993, the Supreme Court ruled that exposing a prisoner to second-hand smoke against his will violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. During the intervening years inmates filed more lawsuits against prisons complaining about the health risks they were exposed to due to second hand smoke and in 2004 the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) stopped selling cigarettes and tobacco products to inmates through the commissary.
The new regulations were a reaction to a federal law that banned smoking in federal buildings and grounds. Some institutions banned tobacco earlier than others, but by 2006 most prisons were in compliance, although it didn’t become official until January 2015.
“While there are a few exceptions, most notably some county jails seem to be behind the times, this is the general rule.” David C. Fathi, Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said. In recent decades, many state prison systems have followed suit and banned smoking by prisoners.“Is banning cigarettes in prison good policy?” Fathi asked.
“There are arguments on both sides. On the one hand, the health benefits of a ban are obvious and significant. At the same time, a ban significantly infringes the personal liberty and quality of life of people who have very little of either. There's no reason why prisoners couldn't be allowed to smoke in designated areas where they would not expose others to second-hand smoke.”
Prisoners told me the tobacco ban has not gone down well inside. “It was 2005, when we were told about it at USP Lewisburg,” said Rosso. “A lot of guys were pissed off. Imagine doing life and you can’t even smoke a fucking cigarette.” Rosso remembers the stress from cons quitting tobacco being off the charts. “Lots of fights occurred,” he said. “Minimize the frequency that you can get access to [anything] and this will lead to stress.”
Cooper was at FDC Philadelphia when the ban was announced and remembers inmates complaining about how they were being forced to kick the habit. “Guys were screaming about the stress they were under from being indicted and how they needed to smoke in order to calm their nerves.” He told VICE. “The BOP didn’t care. They were supposed to have nicotine patches available for inmates who needed them, but they ran out of the patches. A lot of the inmates, including myself, had to kick the smoking habit cold-turkey.”
“When inmates could purchase tobacco in the commissary, there was no need [for] an underground market,” Christopher Zoukis, author of the forthcoming Directory of Federal Prisons and Lead Prison Consultant at prisonerresource.com, told VICE. “Costs were relative to the purchase price in the institutional commissary. But now that inmates can’t legally purchase tobacco products, the market thrives on high prices and smuggling, which creates a whole host of other problems.”
“[The ban’s been] great for the black market racketeers,” Donald Green, who's serving life for a drug conspiracy that included murder in a Florida prison, said. “Cigarettes are worth more than drugs in here. A pack of Buglers goes for $300 easy. A pack of cigs goes for $250. A carton will cost you $2000.” The ban literally created the black market. Things have slowed down to some extent, but inmates still get their hands on tobacco products and in the more dire circumstances will resort to chew and cigarette butts.
“There’s a healthy trade in cigarettes. It’s still part of the prison economy.” Jeffrey Ian Ross, Ph.D., a criminologist at the University of Baltimore, said. “All evidence points to correctional officers bringing the tobacco in.”
Tobacco products are almost exclusively introduced by prison guards. They smuggle the contraband in on their way to work. As tobacco has slowly been banned in institutions nationwide, prison guards have used the opportunity to get their side hustle on. Last month in Florida a former corrections officer was sentenced to prison for 18 months for smuggling tobacco and other drugs into the Santa Rosa Correctional Institute where she worked.
“The officers, mainly due to successful inmates manipulation skills, were often competing with each other,” Fontanez said. “Trying to get the right crew/car or person to push the 5 or 6 logs (cartons) that they were trying to get off every month. Anyone who had a brain was trying to make some real money.” Power struggles, corruption, and violence have been three of the main outcomes of the ban.
Many people in prison have already battled addictions with alcohol and drugs, Papi, who’s doing time for Illegal Reentry, says. “Tobacco is a drug, no? It no matter if the tobacco is cigars or from the chew, it’s nicotine and people in here they want the nicotine drug.” Papi doesn’t judge anyone, but he thinks maybe the officers shouldn’t be allowed to use the chewing tobacco at work. He thinks that it’s all a big problem that the officers create. Other prisoners share his sentiment. It’s a do as I say not as I do proposition. When you’re in prison you don’t have any rights.”
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