The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

June 16, 2008

Smoking ban has its problems in W.Va. prisons

Inmates at two West Virginia prisons say the smoking ban imposed March 1 as a means of lowering health costs associated with nicotine abuse has triggered a black market to peddle cigarettes at exorbitant prices to convicts.

Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein acknowledged Monday that some staff have been reprimanded for allowing contraband into prisons, but wouldn’t say if the infractions directly entailed tobacco.

“Could be,” he said. “Certainly, we realized that with this tobacco ban, sort of what was going to jump to the top of the list as far as a contraband item is tobacco.”

An inmate at Huttonsville Correctional Center told The Register-Herald that a 6-ounce bag of tobacco once sold for $6.

“Now, it will cost you $5 or more for a black market cigarette that is only as big as a pencil lead,” the inmate said in a letter. “I know, because I have bought my share. The profit on the 6-ounce bag of tobacco is beyond belief. You can hand roll approximately 600 cigarettes out of a 6-ounce bag of tobacco, giving you a profit of $3,000.”

Several lawsuits were filed by inmates in an effort to reverse the policy, but all such challenges were rejected by the West Virginia Supreme Court and circuit courts, Rubenstein said.

Rubenstein wouldn’t confirm whether tobacco has turned up in cells or in prison yards, but didn’t discount the prospect of a black market preying on the nicotine-addicted.

“I’m sure that you know as in the past with contraband items, certainly if those things are being sold, they’re at the prices that would boggle yours and my mind what we would pay for in a convenience store, a Wal-Mart, or whatever,” the commissioner said.

“One of the things we have also talked about and realize is we’ve had staff who had been reprimanded or who had lost their jobs over other contraband items over the years. Sadly, again, that’s the nature of this business.”

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