In the beginning of 2005, Warden Joseph Smith called all of the prisoners at USP Lewisburg into the auditorium for a Town Hall meeting. “Beginning in January of next year,” he announced, “The Bureau of Prisons will no longer allow inmates to consume tobacco products in any of its institutions.” For the remainder of the year, he said, cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and snuff would still be sold in the prison commissary, and designated smoking areas would be assigned. “But come the end of this year,” he added, “We have to wrap this thing up, guys.”
Anticipating a great financial opportunity, many inmates in Lewisburg immediately began stocking up on tobacco products. For example, Buglar brand rolling tobacco sold for 85 cents a pouch in the commissary. Once the sales of tobacco ceased, everyone assumed that Buglar would shoot up to $5.00 a pouch. Likewise, New Portcigarettes were $4.90 a pack. After the tobacco prohibition kicked in the black-market value was expected to be $25. 00 per pack.
By the time that November came around my cell-mate, Jack West, and I had tobacco stashed all over the prison. At night, after lock-down, we would stay up late taping pouches of Buglar together in rope-like fashion. During the day, we would stash the ropes under our clothes and take them with us as we went around the institution poking holes in walls, ceilings, and stairwells then stuffing them with tobacco. Once each hole was filled we would slap drywall mud over them, let dry, then come back late and paint over them. Also, we figured out a way to remove the tops of soda cans with sandpaper and we stuffed those with tobacco as well. If properly compacted, each 12 ounce can held 11 pouches of Buglar and vended into a six-pack so well, that it was nearly impossible to tell which one contained soda or contraband without removing the cans from the plastic ring and shaking them.
Jack and I were by no means the only two guys in Lewisburg stashing tobacco all over the place. There were guys hiding tobacco in the chapel, in the gym, in counselors’ officers, in UNICOR (factory), and even burying cigarettes out on the yard. One guy, John from Boston, knocked a hole in a superficial beam in his cell that was so big; he easily fit 100 cartons of Buglar in it before he sealed it, that’s 1,200 pouches in all.
In January of 2006 the prices of tobacco were as expected – $5, 00 for a Pound of Buglar and $25. 00 for a pack of New Ports. Although many inmates began cashing in as soon as Warden Smith declared tobacco items contraband, Jack and I did not. However, rather than wait 6 months or more until Buglar reached $50. 00 a punch, something happened that caused me to brake into our stash. After a near 3 year hiatus from using drugs and alcohol, I began using heroin.
Needless to say, my tobacco didn’t last long.
To understand the depth of the illegal tobacco trade in here you must first understand the basics of prisons economics. In most federal prisons we use U.S. postage stamps as currency (in some prisons they use mackerel or tuna fish). Back in 2006 the price of a first class stamp was, 37 cents, however, the black-market value of that same stamp was only, 25 cents. With 20 stamps equating one “book”, the value of a book of stamps was $5.00. In order to keep currency flowing and the economy stable, inmates purchase stamps from the commissary at face value as well as buy them from one another at a discount rate. Most commonly,, the guys that run stores, gambling operations, deal drugs, manufacture and sell alcohol, or otherwise hustle, sell stamps to people who generally turn right back around and use them to buy goods sold in the units, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or use them to gamble with, the exception being whose of us that do use stamps for their intended purpose -mailing.
When I relapsed I sold each pouch of Buglar that I had for $10, 00 -”2 books”. In turn, the people that purchased the tobacco from me sold “Rollie’s”, individual hand rolled cigarettes for 5 stamps each. Then, just like me, those guys spent all of the stamps that they made on heroin. Meanwhile, the heroin dealer sold his stamps to bookies, drug users, tobacco fiends or gamblers. And just so I’m clear about how we buy stamps from each other, we either purchase them with commissary items or we have the money sent, that is, those who buy the stamps will have someone that they know in the “free-world” send money via money order or Western Union to the sellers prison account or to someone that he knows on the outside, such as a wife, girlfriend, family member or friend.
A year into the tobacco Prohibition, the supply in Lewisburg was getting scarce. The average price for a pouch of Buglar was $100, and tailor-made cigarettes such as Marlboro’s and New Port’s could no longer be found. But in an institution where illegal narcotics flowed freely, no one expected the prison to be a tobacco-free zone anytime soon, especially with corrupt correctional officers on the loose. In fact, I knew of 3 officers that were bringing in Buglar and selling them for $250 a carton, cartons they paid less than $10, 00 for. To pay campers for the contraband inmates had their family members or friends send money to addresses provided by the officers, P.O. boxes to be exact. In one case, a friend of mine memorized officer P.O. Box information and recited it to his wife during visitation. A few days later the officer received his money and delivered my friend the goods.
On January 27, 2011 I was transferred from USP Lewisburg to the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina where I soon found out that contraband cigarettes were as plentiful as contraband prescription narcotics. The price of a pack of New Port’s was $80.00, two packs went for $150, and the average price of a carton was $500, An individual or “single” cigarette sold for a book and a half ($7,50) of stamps, and some guys were buying singles, breaking them down into four pieces and selling them for 10 stamps ($2,50) each, making a $2,50 profit.
Over a 10 month period I bought cigarettes from two inmates who were buying them directly from staff members. In turn, I would use them to buy drugs. For instance, the price of 4 percocets is one book of stamps ($5, 00); however, I could get 8 percocets for one cigarette. Morphine, a drug I also used, cost one book for 60 milligrams but I would get 180 milligrams for one cigarette. Fentanyl is another opiate that I liked when I would pay one cigarette for a 100 milligram patch. So as you can see it made much more sense to buy cigarettes and trade them for drugs.
In October of 2007 I was transferred across the street, to Butner Federal Correctional Institution 1 [FCI 1, one of five facilities within the Butner Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) that includes the Federal Medical center (FMC), the federal Prison Camp (FPC or “Camp”), the Low Security Correctional Institution (LSCI or “Low”), and the Federal Correctional Institution 2 (FCI 2 or the “Deuce)]. Because the FCI 1 is directly across the road from the camp, inmates in both facilities are able to stand near the fence and communicate with each other by shouting back and forth or using sign language. More important, some inmates in the camp who do enjoy many freedoms- including being able to leave the prison complex unescorted for short periods of time – supply the inmates at the FCI 1 with cigarettes. They do so by throwing tobacco over the fence or by stashing it in appliances and boxes full of supplies that are sent to the FCI 1 from the complex Warehouses, buildings that the campers work in.
While it’s true that some campers have been able to supply contraband to inmates at the low and FCI 2 as well, the main smuggling route in the Butner prison complex begins at the FMC. Five days a week inmates from the camp, low, FCI 1, and FCI 2 are transported to and from the FMC in vehicles. Not only are inmates from all of these facilities placed in vehicles, holding cages, and waiting rooms together, but we’re also able to mingle with the inmates who live in the hospital as well. With the hospital therefore being the “hub”, inmates from the camp have been known to smuggle cigarettes into the FMC and sell them to the inmates that live there. In turn, the FMC inmates sell them to other who live at the loc, FCI 1 and FCI 2, simply because they are in a prime location to do so. Although all inmates entering and exiting the FMC are strip-searched and undergo tight security measures, inmates in the Butner prison complex routinely smuggle cigarettes, stamps, narcotics, messages and other forms of contraband in and out of the hospital.
But let me be clear about something. In spite of the fact that inmates in Butner have numerous ways of funneling tobacco into these institutions, the main suppliers of illegal tobacco in the entire federal prison system are the staff members.
Since 2006, countless prison employees have been caught bringing tobacco and other contraband items into federal facilities.. At FCC Butner alone, in the past 4 years,7 staff members that I know of have been busted bringing in cigarettes – two nurses that worked at the FMC, a counsellor at the FCI 2, one dental assistant, two correctional officers, and a fool service employee that all worked at the FCI 1 Normally, these cases go unnoticed in the press because the Bureau of Prisons go to great lengths to try and hide or at least downplay any wrongdoings involving staff. Case in point: At USP Lewisburg, a correctional officer named Patience Kit was suspected of having sexual relations with at least two inmates and bringing in contraband, including illegal narcotics and nude photos of herself. Rather than involve the authorities and build a case against her that any rookie prosecutor could have nailed her on, she instead asked to resign and go away quietly. She did. The authorities were not involved. The media had no knowledge about what happened, and the public remained none-the-wiser, just like the BOP wants it.
In regards to “downplaying” wrongdoings involving staff, a person only needs to look at what happened in 2010 at Butner FCI 1. Known for its 3 infamous residents – Bernie Madoff, former Israeli Spy Jonathan Pollard and reputed crime boss Carmie Persico, the FCI 1 also happened to be the home of the Bureau’s Model Residential Drug Addiction Program (RDAP), a 9-month treatment program that primarily focuses on modifying the behavior of criminals. Yet in 2010 three staff members at the FCI 1 were arrested for bringing in contraband - Officer Earl for bringing in cigarettes, officer Pierce for bringing in cigarettes, and food service employee Prady for bringing in tobacco and attempting to bring in heroin.
In case anyone just missed the significance of what I said, let me repeat myself. Three corrupt correctional officers were arrested for bringing contraband into an institution that prides itself on being the MECCA for drug treatment. These officers were directly or indirectly selling illegal tobacco to inmates in RDAP who were either smoking it or selling it, a violation of prison policy as well as a criminal offence. Furthermore, some inmates in RDAP actually got kicked out of the program for reasons related to the contraband brought in by Earl, Pierce and Prady.
Although I’m not trying to suggest that Butner prison officials should have jumped up and down and told the world that three of their former employees directly affected the treatment of some inmates in RDAP, I do believe they could have been more vocal about demanding maximum penalties for all three due to the serious nature of the offense – i.e., they were correctional officers bringing contraband to inmates that were in a very serious behavior modification program. Had prison officials campaigned to make an example out of the three, this would have sparked media attention which would have brought public awareness to the issue. And yes, I do believe that the public deserves to know the FULL TRUTH about what goes on inside of federal prisons. Perhaps then people will start to understand why our nation’s recidivism rate is so high.
Currently, the average price for a carton of cigarettes in most federal prisons is $1,500, allowing the person that brings in the contraband to earn a profit of more than $1,400 for one carton. The inmates who buy the carton generally sell packs for $200 and make $500 for their involvement. The pack buyers either make a quick hundred by turning around and selling the same pack for $300, or they sell single or “loose” cigarettes for 3 books each ($18,00), netting a profit of $360 (the black market value of a first class stamp is now .30 cents, making a book of stamps worth $6.00). These loose cigarettes are either smoked or broken down into 5 pieces and sold for a book each, allowing even the buyer of a single cigarette a chance to make $12.00.
Rolling tobacco such as Buglar and Top also regularly flows into the federal prison system, but the wholesale price differs from one institution to the next. For instance, a correctional officer in USP Victorville may charge as little as $50 for one pouch of Buglar, while correctional officers at USP Lewisburg may charge $150 per pouch. Likewise, a can of tobacco (about two pouches) or a carton (12 pouches) can go for $500 or $1,500, depending on the institution. However, in many cases rolling tobacco is smuggled in through the same channel as illegal drugs (visitation, mail, and other less obvious ways that I need not mention) and comes in small quantities, a pouch or two at a time. Normally, the same inmate who directly receives the tobacco will sell it for $300 a pouch or break it down and sell single cigarettes. Per pouch, a person can roll 70 tiny cigarettes and sell them for one book each ($6.00), meaning, off of one pouch of rolling tobacco someone can make between $120 and $420 off of something that cost around $2.00 on the street.
Two other tobacco products sold in federal prison are “re-roll” and “re-dip”, that is discarded cigarette butts and used chewing tobacco than has been spit out of someone’s mouth. You see, correctional officers are allowed to smoke in designated areas and many officers do chew tobacco, also known as “dip”`. Everyday, there are inmates who rummage through trashcans and comb prison grounds in search of tobacco remnants left behind by staff members. Once these precious bits of tobacco are found, they bring it back to the units,dry it out in microwaves if need be, then roll it up in Bible paper or toilet paper wrapping, which ever is available. These cigarettes are called “re-rolls” and “re-dips” and they usually sell for a book each.
While buying and selling re-roll and re-dip may see disgusting, let me tell about a friend of mine. Dead broke and desperate for money, he turned to hunting and selling used tobacco in the manner that I just mentioned and made $1,000 in one month. With that money, he turned around and bought 3 grams of heroin, of which he made a profit of $2,000 per gram.
In less than 3 months my friend made $6,000 in prison all because some staff members brought tobacco to work, used it to be on the premises, then threw it on the ground.
At the bottom of the illegal tobacco trade are the tobacco users, tens of thousands of federal prisoners who have been reduced to nothing more than junkies since the tobacco prohibition went into effect. While not every inmate that smokes falls into this category, must do. Like heroin addicts, the typical nicotine addict behind bars stays broke, is always in debt, owes three or more people at any given time isn't necessarily trustworthy . Over the past 5 years I’ve witnessed so many guys who otherwise had honorable reputations destroy their good names over tobacco debts. What seems to always start out as one person giving, inevitably leads to the smoker maxing out his line of credit, borrowing stamps from other to pay off his bills, then this vicious cycle of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul ensues until eventually no one will lend them money. At that point, one of the following usually happens:
a) They turn to their family and friends for financial help. Sometimes the only way they can pay off an their debts is as people on the street to send money, either directly to their commissary account and they pay off their debts with store goods,or the money is sent to the inmates they owe or an address on the street. Although some prisoners will tell their family/friends the truth (that owe money for tobacco), others will lie. I know many guys who have told their family members, they were being extorted when that wasn’t the case.
b) They just don’t pay their bills. Some guys that don’t have the money simply just say they can’t pay and that’s the end of it. Others intentionally run up bills that they know they can never pay without a care in the world. I've known cases where guys have gotten their heads cracked open for doing this and I've also seen the people that they owe bow down, and take the loss.
c) They resort to stealing, robbing and extortion. Most commonly, nicotine addicts who are in financial trouble steal or “locker knock”, go inside of an unoccupied cell and break into someones locker and steal all of their valuables. The more brazen tobacco addict will physically rob or extort people, in many cases using a knife. In regards to extortion, the victim will either be walked to a telephone at knife point and forced to ask family members or friends for money via Western union to a prepared address or they will be forced to pay monthly.
d) They snitch. Inmates that owe money sometimes turn to staff for financial help. It’s common practice for the Special Investigation Service (SIS or the institution Gestapo) to give stamps in exchange for information. Lieutenants and other staff members engage in this practice as well. Also, rather than snitch for stamps some tobacco junkies that are in debt will rat out the cigarette dealers and loan shacks in order to get the caught, put in the hole, and sometimes transferred.
e) They “drop notes”. One of the most cowardly acts an inmate can do is “drop a note”, i.e., they write an anonymous note claiming that some life is in danger then they drop the note in the mailbox. Sadly, most prison administrations honor these notes and will put an inmate in the hole if a note is dropped on him. Therefore, all someone has to do it if they are in debt is drop a note on the person they owe money to and he will be sent to the hole, and possibly even transferred. Also, some inmates actually go the extra mile and plant contraband such as a knife in the cell of people that they owe money too.
f) They “check-in”. Also known as seeking protective custody, some tobacco users that are too far in debt will just walk up to a staff member and tell them that their life is in danger. This guarantees them a trip to the hole and normally they are transferred, without every having to pay their bills.
g) They assault someone. Sometimes smokers will assault a person that they owe money to if they can’t pay and feel threatened. Also, people who are in debt have been known to randomly find someone to assault – “pick a victim” as it’s called. Normally, the victim is someone much weaker than the assailant, and the only reason the assault occurs in the first place is so that the person who is in debt can get caught and go to the hole. It should be noted that we do consider this a “check-in move” because the result is the same: the tobacco junkie who owes the money goes to the hole and is normally transferred without ever paying his debt, which is precisely the way he wanted it.
Besides, those who have fallen by the wayside due to tobacco debts, I’ve also known guys who have turned to prostitution in order to support their cigarette habits, guys that have literally starved themselves by trading, their meals for cigarettes, guys that wash and dry clothes all day long just so they can smoke, guys who are sick and dying that trade their pain pills for smokes, and guys who have assaulted others for some tobacco. Again although not everyone in federal prison who smokes is a junkie, the majority, in some manner, have compromised their honor and integrity for tobacco – just like the average junkie.
In general, the tobacco prohibition has made the federal prison system less safe. The addictive nature of nicotine makes users who really can’t afford to smoke but do so anyway,irritable. The high prices of cigarettes make people more prone to rob, steal, and extort. Tobacco-related assaults do occur, gang violence has been attributed to the illegal tobacco trade, and correctional officers now bring in more contraband than ever before. And then there is the cost. While I’m sure that the reason for the tobacco prohibition was to help reduce the long-term cost of health care for a rapidly aging prison population, no one seemed to consider how much it would cost to transfer all of the inmates that check-in, are assaulted, commit assaults, or otherwise must be transferred because of matters related to contraband tobacco. According to one of the Associate Wardens here at Butner, it costs approximately $20,000 to transfer one inmate from one prison to another. And just so you know, every year thousand of federal inmates are transferred because of problems that stem from the illegal tobacco trade.
Taxpayers foot the bill.
As the proceeds from the illegal tobacco trade in federal prison trickle up from user to distributor, from distributor to supplier, supplier to importer, and from importer out into that world, I think it’s important for people understand the amount of money that I’m talking about –millions of dollars a year. And do you know where the biggest portion goes? It’s spent an illegal drugs, drugs that are then smuggled into the federal prison system just as easily as contraband tobacco is. And when you look at the bigger picture and consider that nearly all state prison systems also most are just as saturated with illegal drugs as the federal prison system is, we are talking potentially tens of millions of dollars a year being generated from the sales of illegal tobacco in our nations prisons which are being use to help fuel the illegal drug trade.
And don’t for one second think that there aren’t prison officials, law makers, and law enforcement agents who aren’t aware of this.