As tobacco bans have spread across prisons nationwide, cigarettes have grown into a contraband item of choice, rivaling illegal and illicit drugs in their availability and profitability on the black market.
With tobacco products now banned by the federal Bureau of Prisons and the majority of state prison systems, the price of a single Marlboro inside now reaches twenty dollars. A policy intended to produce health benefits and reduce fire risk has created a cash cow for prison gangs like the Mexican Mafia and Aryan Brotherhood, and the guards willing to work with them.
By utilizing the smuggling methods developed to bring in heroin and other drugs (and aided by the ease of purchasing cigarettes on the outside) the gangs ensure prisoners can get a smoke anytime they want—if they are willing to pay the price. A pack of Newports or Camels can cost $200 while a pouch of rolling tobacco, like Bugler, which sells for a couple of dollars in the free world, can earn an enterprising inmate hundreds.
“When I first came into the feds in the ‘90s, cigarettes were used as money,” a prisoner tells The Daily Beast. “Let’s say you want a piece of chicken, that was one pack. Some weed or hooch to get you lit might set you back 2 or 3 cartons. That was how we did business.” With generic brand cigarettes sold in commissary for about a dollar each, packs were an effective unit of currency. “But when they outlawed tobacco in 2004, we started using stamps as money in here… Now if I want to buy a Marlboro or Newport to smoke, it’s like three books of stamps.”
A book of 20 stamps sells for $9 on the commissary, but represents a $6 value on the compound. With thousands of books of stamps in circulation at every prison, a thriving and fluid economy exists.
“Money makes the world go round,” the prisoner says. “It’s the same thing in here. The gangs are making a lot of money smuggling in and selling tobacco.” While illegal drugs usually enter prison a couple of grams at a time, tobacco is introduced in bulk. “Most prisons have an outside warehouse that sends loads of supplies in everyday, things the prison needs to run,” the prisoner says. “Most times low-security inmates staff these warehouses. It isn’t very hard for them to get a package of say 100 pouches of Bugler, insert them into a box of supplies entering the prison and alert their homeboy on the inside where to find the tobacco.” This is usually communication through multiple phone calls to third parties on the outside who relay details, messages and instructions.
“My one homeboy had a sweet hookup. He was with the Sureños, who are under the Mexican Mafia,” the prisoner says. “He worked in the kitchen, he was the warehouse clerk. He logged and accounted for every box that entered food service. The truck came every Monday. You know there was a fresh load of pouches every Monday.”
“The kitchen warehouse clerk was paid $1,000 for every 100 pouches to receive and store the tobacco,” the prisoner says. Everyone involved in bringing the tobacco in gets paid by PayPal or Western Union.
“It’s a win-win proposition,” the prisoner says. “La Eme [one name for the Mexican Mafia] and the AB are making a fortune. It’s a real sweet hustle.”
Once the tobacco is on the compound, the pouches wholesale for 50 books of stamps, or $300 each. Each pouch is then broken down into 80 to 100 tiny rollups that cost one book each, or six dollars. A $3 pouch of Bugler ends up retailing inside for about $600—a 20,000% markup.
The main complication for sellers comes if they need to convert stamps back into cash. While the 3-stampbook-per-prisoner rule is routinely flouted (imagine if you were only allowed to have three five-dollar bills at any given time), dealers, big willie prisoners or others looking to exchange often well-worn stamp books into dollars need an outside person to make a street-to-street transaction, with money wired to a family member or someone else on the outside in exchange for stamps trading hands on the inside.
With most of the money transactions taking place outside of the prison, it’s hard for investigators inside to track the transfers. And with only hundreds or thousands of dollars being moved at a time, it doesn’t attract the attention of outside law-enforcement authorities. “This one Sureño dude had shit on smash here. He literally made over $100,000 in a couple of years getting tobacco in like this. The homie came up. He was about his business,” the prisoner says.
“Most times the prison doesn’t sweat it because they are more worried about drugs and stabbings and the like. Keeping the violence to a minimum is their main concern. Tobacco is low on their agenda. A lot of guards don’t care about cigarettes anyhow. I mean, they smoke.”
Even when caught with 100 pouches of tobacco the infractions are minor. There is little deterrent to getting caught. “They might lock you in the hole or transfer you, but in the feds they can only write you a 300-series contraband shot if you get caught with smokes,” the prisoner says. “Compare that to a 100-series shot for drugs or stabbing someone.” Most prisons issue incident reports on a sliding scale from 100 series (highest severity) to 400 series (lowest severity). In essence, prisoners found holding tobacco, in any amount, get written up the same as if they get caught taking a tomato out of food service, which is also a contraband item.
“If you got several homeboys in place, someone on the outside to do the money transactions, some muscle to back your play and no problem with the minor consequences you can get rich off the cigarette hustle in no time flat,” the prisoner says. “For real, the guards and administration don’t sweat it. Just don’t front them off. If you keep it on the low, it’s all good. Dudes are supporting their families from their hustles in here. It’s crazy, but that’s just the way it is.”