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As Pa. prisons ban tobacco, new informal currencies arise: chips, ice cream tickets, ramen

Tobacco has long functioned as extralegal tender, traded to settle a gambling debt, outsource laundry service, commission a portrait of a loved one, or purchase a sandwich swiped from the dining hall. But that's been changing.

The Department of Corrections' commissary list includes Chex Mix, Wise BBQ potato chips, Hershey's milk chocolate bars, and ramen.
The Department of Corrections' commissary list includes Chex Mix, Wise BBQ potato chips, Hershey's milk chocolate bars, and ramen.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Freddie Nole gave up smoking in 1979, after a bout of pneumonia put him in the hospital. But for the next 40 years, he always kept a pack of cigarettes or a pouch of Kite tobacco in his cell — just in case.

“You’d hold on to Kite, if you could afford to get it, until something came along that you wanted, and that would be the currency,” said Nole, who was paroled in January after a half-century in prison. Tobacco was the answer for obtaining everyday necessities, as well as for managing exigent circumstances: “I had friends I would try to keep out of the black market: I could give them something so they could not succumb to the borrowing. So, I always had cigarettes on hand for the purpose of exchanging. In prison, debt could be very problematic.”

Such is the informal economy of prisons, where tobacco has long functioned as extralegal tender, traded to settle a gambling debt, outsource laundry service, hire personal security, tip a barber, commission a portrait of a loved one, or purchase a coveted fresh vegetable swiped from the dining hall.

But smoking, which is more than twice as prevalent among inmates as it is in the outside world, is about to be extinguished in Pennsylvania state prisons. As of July 1, tobacco products will be banned, the Department of Corrections announced last week (though vaping will persist).

The DOC says it’s a move toward a healthier future. Last year, inmates spent $8 million on tobacco products. In 2017, cancers of the lung and larynx, chronic pulmonary obstruction, and heart disease accounted for at least one-third of deaths in Pennsylvania state prisons.

“Even though smoking is not permitted in cells, someone being housed with a smoker, they’re definitely going to benefit from tobacco-free,” said executive deputy secretary Shirley Moore Smeal.

The DOC will offer smoking cessation classes, including free nicotine patches for participants — though, Smeal acknowledged, in the past participation in such programs has been low. She noted that the DOC already operates four smoke-free facilities, and said complaints are rare.

Even so, some staff are worried about violence from tens of thousands of irritable inmates all in simultaneous withdrawal.

“I am concerned that this will put officers in a more volatile situation,” Jason Bloom, president of the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association, said in a statement. ”We’re concerned that there is not enough resources in place to assist inmates with tobacco withdrawal. That presents safety issues for our officers. With assaults on our officers being a major concern right now, this must be addressed.”

The impact of the policy on the informal economy within prisons might seem similarly unpredictable. In fact, the role of the cigarette as the gold standard has evolved already, said Abd’Allah Lateef, who spent three decades in prison and now is an organizer with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Back when a pack cost $1, it was just the right compensation for a sandwich that had been liberated from the dining hall, or a load of freshly washed and pressed clothing. (In the industrial laundry, he said, white shirts and socks were likely to come back a dingy beige.)

“You know what it’s like to wear a fresh clean undershirt, even when your clothes are so drab and so filthy?" he said. "When you can wear something that’s sparkly white and maintain that, there’s a certain self-value that comes from that, to the extent you can still look presentable as you would when you were free. You take that sense of self-value wherever you can get it.”

These days, cigarettes start at $6.78 per pack, which is significant for inmates whose pay tops out at 42 cents an hour. That’s one reason the market favors packaged candy, cookies or chips. “It’s moving and gravitating toward other commodities, simply because tobacco is so expensive,” he said. He believes inmates trading in cigarettes these days are likely gambling or buying drugs and other contraband — not daily incidentals.

Last July, inmates at Graterford Prison in Montgomery County moved to a new institution, Phoenix, that’s smoke-free, resulting in the rapid decline of the cigarette economy.

In the transition, Nole said, a $5 pack of tobacco that survived the journey fetched $60 worth of commissary in Phoenix. “It was like they would do almost anything for a cigarette — stealing increased, the bartering of things increased. Guys went to the hole for smoking. Guards were going through it, too, because they couldn’t leave the premises to smoke.”

John Young, on the other hand, actually requested a transfer to another smoke-free institution, the Chester state prison, a few years back.

“I kept saying I’m going to quit before I came out of prison. But then I had excuse after excuse,” said Young, who spent 43 years in prison before being paroled last June. “I decided to go to Chester and give up smoking, and I haven’t looked back.”

Still, it wasn’t that cigarettes were hard to come by at Chester, he said.

“It’s a jail. You can get anything in a jail," he said with a laugh. With a tobacco ban, “you’re creating a whole new black market.”

No matter what prisoners are trading, they’re incurring some risk of running afoul of rules, like a blanket prohibition on lending and borrowing.

Still, Michael Gibson-Light, a sociologist who undertook an ethnographic study of one prison’s informal economy, found that even when cigarettes lose favor, new currencies arise.

At the prison he studied, the ramen packet had become the preferred denomination. At other institutions, he said, inmates trade in Little Debbie Honey Buns, or canned fish.

He does not attribute that shift to restrictions on smoking, or to the rising price of cigarettes.

Instead, he said, there’s a common theme at prisons across the country: “The quantity and quality of meals has decreased. More and more, prisoners are expected to supplement it themselves, to buy food in the commissary. Food purchases have been naturalized as part of the prison experience. To me that became the key to the story: less about tobacco and more about the food.”

Gibson-Light said even men who disliked the soup, or who were concerned about its high sodium levels, still stockpiled ramen savings accounts.

One current Phoenix inmate, who declined to be named for fear of discipline, said now that tobacco is out of the picture, inmates haven’t settled on a single currency. (He doesn’t think ramen, at 28 cents a pack, will be the new cigarette. “That’s the lowest of the lowest — nobody wants more soup. Trying to give somebody soup, it’s like, ‘Get that out of here!’”)

“It’s more of a bartering system now,” the inmate said. An inmate could pay six or seven bags of chips for an elaborate, handmade greeting card. A man who purchased the wrong size of sneakers from the commissary might sell them for ice cream tickets rather than pay a $15 restocking fee. Men might pay in candy or cookies for enterprising inmates to braid their hair, clean their cells, or provide security, or wager photo tickets in the workplace football pool.

Sometimes, he said, he’ll help other inmates, writing letters for them or typing legal paperwork. Some will insist on paying with whatever they have on hand.

“Some people live on the system like nothing’s free in prison. They can’t see someone just doing something out of kindness. “