Ohio’s prisons have become increasingly violent since March 2009, when the state enacted a tobacco ban, and the state’s prison director thinks there may be a connection. Director Gary Mohr of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction told the Dayton Daily News
he is launching a study to determine whether the tobacco ban is stirring problems in the state’s prisons, where violent disturbances have doubled.
People are becoming even bolder about smuggling contraband into the prisons, such as tobacco, illegal drugs, and cell phones — including throwing items over fences — and rival gangs are fighting to control the black market.
“Tobacco has become a currency that’s used in our prisons,” Mohr said. Mohr is a former Ohio prison official who went to work in private-sector prisons for years but returned as director in January 2011. He said he was “made sick” by the increasing violence.
Mohr ordered his research department to investigate disturbances involving four or more inmates, and expects results in three to four weeks.
The tobacco ban was imposed by Mohr’s predecessor, Terry Collins, who hoped to cut inmate healthcare costs. Mohr, though, says he will “have to weigh whether the degree of violence” outweighs health benefits before he would decide whether to lift the ban.
Tobacco means big money behind bars. Just one hand-rolled cigarette sells for as much as $5 in Ohio’s prisons, even though prisoners also aren’t allowed to have cash.
With the price so high for tobacco, there have been prison employees who haven’t been immune to the lure of easy money. However, because tobacco isn’t an illegal substance, except for prisoners, employees can be fired for selling contraband, but not criminally charged.
Younger, tech-savvy inmates are also bringing along an increasing trade in cell phones. He said prisoners are using the cell phones to continue running outside criminal activity, even though they’re behind bars, and to bring in even more contraband.
Cell phones are even more valuable than tobacco. A cheap phone that sells for $25 on the street can bring in $500 to $700 on the prison black market. Some of the prisons now have dogs that are trained to sniff out tobacco and cell phones, as well as illegal drugs.
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