In a world where a loosie (that's a single cigarette) goes for $20 and prison guards tend to look the other way, gangs like the Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood are making a killing off the cancer sticks.
Gorilla Conflict founder Seth Ferranti reports that although tobacco products are banned in federal prisons and in most state systems, the punishment for possession is typically light and outside law enforcement is generally not interested in investigating. It doesn't hurt that many of the guards smoke, and some actively aid the prisoners.
According to The Daily Beast's inmate source, a $3 pouch of Bugler tobacco can net around $600, while a pack of Newports can cost $200. Inmates can't have cash, so they purchase stamps (about $6 for 20 stamps) in the commissary and trade them for goods.
“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... 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.”
Inmates smuggle tobacco inside in bulk, usually concealing pouches in boxes of supplies entering the prisons. Most prisons have a low-security outside warehouse manned by inmates, making it easy to hide the pouches and coordinate deliveries with other inmates who unpack the boxes inside. Interestingly, everyone gets paid through PayPal and Western Union.
Punishment tends to be low-level — a low-level write-up or a brief stint in solitary. Furthermore, most of the money is transacted outside of the prisons, and prison enforcement officers don't have the resources to investigate the funding.
“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 inmate told The Daily Beast. “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.”