JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Inmates are likely counting down the days until they’ll be able to light up again in Mississippi’s prisons.
So many people are expected to begin smoking, in fact, that some facilities began taking pre-orders for cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products earlier this month.
However, the rollout isn’t without its hitches.
Some inmates are complaining of price-gouging, while some nonprofits are saying the change in policy will only hurt inmate health.
Mississippi Department of Corrections officials say they’re looking into a complaint of price-gouging made to WLBT, adding that cigarettes are not supposed to be sold beyond market prices.
Meanwhile, they say that prisoners are already smoking and that lifting the ban on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco could make prisons healthier and safer.
“It will cut down on the contraband and gangs using contraband to extort inmates,” said MDOC Assistant Deputy Commissioner Leo Honeycutt. “It will be safer for everybody.”
Honeycutt said guards, former inmates and others have been caught attempting to smuggle cigarettes and other contraband into prisons. Those individuals are typically charged if caught.
For those smugglers that are not, they have been known to charge up to $500 a pound for tobacco products, taking advantage of inmates and inmates’ families, who often have to foot the bill by adding money to their family members’ accounts.
As for claims of price-gouging, Honeycut said he would investigate. He said products are not supposed to be sold beyond market price.
“Our plan was to get the current free prices,” he said, or the prices tobacco is sold for by retailers. “We don’t want price-gouging in the prisons.”
He went on to say that “name-brand cigarettes are being sold for $5.99 for regular, menthol and light (and) dip is being sold for $2.79 for one brand and $3.13 for another.”
One viewer who contacted 3 On Your Side said the legal prices at one facility were more expensive than the black market prices.
That viewer asked to remain anonymous but he did provide a price list from one facility that was charging $8.18 per pack for Seneca regular, menthol and light cigarettes. Smokeless tobacco, like a can of Grizzly regular or Grizzly wintergreen, was selling for $11.08 a can, significantly more than market prices.
By comparison, a can of Copenhagen sells on the Kroger website for $5.24, while a single pack of Pall Mall goes for $6.79 and a single pack of Marlboro 72s goes for $6.54.
It was not known what facility the price list was for.
In December, MDOC Commissioner Burl Cain announced that smoking would again be legal in Mississippi prisons, a decade after it was banned.
At the time, Cain said the change would protect inmates who were already smoking, as well as correction officials, who might be smuggling products into prisons.
“By selling the same cigarettes that are allowed to free people, we are breaking the contraband tobacco trade … reducing inmate contraband violations and recouping for taxpayers some of the dollars it takes to run state prisons,” he said in a statement.
Revenues from tobacco sales will go to fund MDOC’s re-entry program, which teaches parole-eligible men and women the skills needed for various trades.
Some public health groups, like the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, are opposed to the change, saying inmates have the right to “breathe clean, smoke-free air.”
“We’re disappointed by the recent decision to nullify (a) lifesaving policy that has protected people who are incarcerated, as well as staff, from the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke for over a decade. The leading cause of preventable death, smoking is a proven risk factor for developing cancer, heart disease, and other diseases – and additionally puts people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” the society said in a statement.
Cain said he is sympathetic to anti-smoking groups, but said lifting the smoking ban actually could improve air quality for non-smokers.
“The state’s smoking ban was meant to protect others from second-hand smoke but in prison, it backfired by forcing inmates to buy and smoke covertly inside. Then they started tearing out electrical wiring to light the cigarettes, which created a fire and an electrocution hazard,” Cain said in a statement.
“Under our new plan, prisoners have a designated place to smoke that’s outdoors and away from everybody else. We are also offering smoking cessation products for those who want to quit,” he said. “Another big benefit is we are destroying the contraband market for gangs who were extorting other inmates.”
The new policy takes effect on February 1.