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Can You Smoke in Prison?

Smoking policies in prisons have evolved over the years, with many facilities across the United States banning tobacco use entirely. However, rules and regulations vary between federal, state, and county correctional institutions. Understanding the complex landscape around smoking in jails and prisons can help inmates and their families navigate this common concern.

Brief History of Smoking in Prisons

Cigarettes were once treated as currency among prisoners. Smoking was an allowed privilege that kept inmates pacified. Most facilities had designated indoor smoking areas up until the 1990s when correctional systems began transitioning to smoke-free environments.

This shift correlated with smoking bans in public spaces and a growing awareness of the health risks associated with first and second-hand smoke. While specifics differ across jurisdictions, most prisons today have restrictions, if not outright prohibitions, on tobacco products.

Reasons for Banning Smoking in Prisons

There are several motivations behind banning smoking in jails and prisons:

  • Health. Second-hand smoke is dangerous, and correctional staff and inmates have right to clean air. Ventilation systems in aging prisons often cannot properly circulate air.
  • Safety. Loose tobacco and matches can be misused or provide fuel for fires. E-cigarettes can be modified to smoke illicit substances.
  • Costs. Healthcare for smoking-related illnesses is expensive. Smoke damage leads to increased maintenance. Prohibitions save money.
  • Contraband. Tobacco products are trafficked alongside weapons and drugs. A ban reduces valuable blackmarket currency.
  • Culture change. Many systems view tobacco as counterproductive to rehabilitative goals. Smoke-free environments help change social norms.

State and Federal Prison Smoking Laws

Smoking laws for state and federal correctional facilities include:

Federal Bureau of Prisons

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) banned tobacco products in all federal prisons in 2004. The prohibition applies to cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, snuff, chewing tobacco, and loose rolling tobacco.

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The only exceptions are religious uses of tobacco by Native American inmates in ceremonial settings. Even these uses require approval from prison wardens.

State Prisons

  • As of October 2022, 21 state prison systems ban tobacco and smoking outright in all facilities.
  • Another 16 states prohibit tobacco in certain prisons or units, including smoke-free dorms and health facilities.
  • Just 5 states – Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia, and West Virginia – still permit tobacco products in state prisons, though restrictions may apply.
  • The remaining states fall somewhere in between, with complex regulations or partial bans.

Rules are continuously evolving, so specific state prisons should be checked for current policies. See resources at the end of this article for an updated tracking of state laws.

County and City Jail Smoking Rules

County jails and city detention centers set their own smoking policies that often differ from state prisons. However, many are going tobacco-free:

  • Large systems like Los Angeles County, Chicago Department of Corrections, and New York City Department of Correction have total bans.
  • 2010 survey found nearly half of U.S. jails prohibited smoking indoors, and an additional 8% were smoke-free indoors and outdoors. More jails have gone smoke-free since.
  • The American Jail Association recommends completely tobacco-free facilities.

Inmates and families should directly consult county jail staff about tobacco rules for a given facility. Policies are not always made public or easy to find online.

Common Alternatives to Smoking in Prison

Prisons with tobacco bans offer products to help inmates cope with withdrawal and cravings:

  • Nicotine replacement therapy – Many systems provide nicotine patches, gum, or lozenges as alternatives to cigarettes. Inmates must be cleared by medical staff to receive these.
  • E-cigarettes – Some states sell e-cigarettes through commissaries, citing them as a safer alternative. However, many prohibit them over safety issues.
  • Smokeless tobacco – Chewing tobacco and other smokeless products are sometimes allowed in tobacco-free facilities, but not always. Check specific facility policies.
  • Quitting incentives – Some jails offer reduced sentences or privileges for completing smoking cessation plans prior to release. This helps inmates transition to smoke-free lives.

However, contraband tobacco still circulates in many “smoke-free” facilities. Correctional staff must be vigilant in enforcement efforts for bans to work.

Consequences of Smoking in Prison When Banned

Prisons use various disciplinary methods against inmates caught smoking or in possession of tobacco products:

  • Confiscation – Tobacco products are seized on the spot if discovered through searches or metal detectors. This takes away valuable currency.
  • Privilege loss – Inmates may lose recreation time, visitation rights, or other privileges. This provides a strong deterrent.
  • Fees – Some systems fine inmates caught smoking in non-smoking areas. The fee is debited from their commissary account.
  • Segregation – Those repeatedly violating smoking bans may get sentenced to solitary confinement away from the general population.
  • Criminal charges – Inmates can face additional criminal charges for defiance of authority or destroying property through cigarette fires. This adds time to their sentence.
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Jails and prisons take smoking bans seriously with the above penalties. However, enforcement is still an ongoing struggle.

Famous Inmate Quotes About Smoking in Prison

Prison writing provides perspectives on how tobacco restrictions affect inmates:

“When the last cigarette was smoked, when the last match was struck, when the last puff of smoke was exhaled, we instantly went from human beings with hopes, fears, and anxieties to primates with primitive instincts of survival.” – William Oddie, former inmate at San Quentin State Prison

“Guys committed assaults, dealt drugs, escaped, and did other crazy things just to get their hands on some smokes. Prison officials had no clue of the chaos their tobacco ban would cause.” – Danny Trejo, actor and ex-convict

“You never know what you got ’til it’s gone. I didn’t know how much cigarettes meant to me until they took ’em away. It’s like losing your best friend.” – Curtis Carroll, author of Heart of a Criminal

“They banned tobacco because they care about our health. But prison is still making me sick. The stress, the isolation. Cigarettes were my medicine in here.” – Name withheld, prisoner in the Midwest

These sentiments reveal how deeply engrained smoking is in prison life, and the unintended consequences bans can have on mental health behind bars.

Can inmates ever smoke in prisons with tobacco bans?

In most cases, no. Some wardens make very limited exceptions for certain religious or spiritual uses, but smoking is typically completely prohibited. Bans apply indoors and outdoors in all inmate accessible areas.

Are all tobacco products banned?

Most prisons forbid cigarettes, cigars, pipes, rolling tobacco, snuff, and chewing tobacco. E-cigarette policies vary, with some systems allowing them. Certain kinds of smokeless tobacco may also be exempt. Always check a facility’s specific rules.

Can staff members smoke in prisons?

In correctional systems with comprehensive bans, no. Staff are subject to the same prohibitions as inmates when on site. Some facilities allow staff smoking only in designated outdoor areas away from inmates.

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Can visitors smoke when seeing prisoners?

No. Smoke-free policies usually cover a facility’s entire grounds. Visitors cannot use tobacco products anywhere on prison property.

How do inmates get tobacco if it’s banned?

Blackmarket trafficking brings tobacco in from the outside. Contraband cigarettes are smuggled through visitors, staff, vendors, or even shipped deliveries. Inmates also improvise with loose rolling papers and dried leaves. Where there’s demand, underground supply persists.

Is second-hand smoke really dangerous in well-ventilated buildings?

Yes. No ventilation system can eliminate health risks associated with indoor smoking. Prisons also have high occupancy, so any amount of second-hand smoke poses dangers. Employees and inmates should not be subjected to these risks.

Don’t e-cigarettes provide a safe alternative to smoking?

While e-cigarettes do not produce toxic combustion chemicals, they can still expose users and bystanders to nicotine and other harmful substances. Their batteries also pose fire risks if damaged or modified. Most prisons see them as contraband.

Are tobacco bans fair to inmates who are addicted to smoking?

Prisons have duty to protect health of incarcerated individuals. Options like nicotine patches, counseling, or quitting incentives can treat addiction. Some institutions even reduce sentences for completing cessation programs. Bans, when properly implemented, benefit inmates.

The Future of Smoking in Prisons

More correctional facilities are likely to go completely tobacco-free in coming years:

  • Growing public smoking prohibitions will normalize policies.
  • Tobacco-related illnesses and lawsuits will burden prison budgets.
  • Contraband issues will force administrations to be more proactive.
  • Culture change and rehabilitative ideals will phase out smoking.

However, enforcement challenges will remain without proper resources and effective health interventions. Balancing safety with humanity is key in applying and evolving these institution-wide bans.


Prohibitions on tobacco in prisons aim to improve inmate and staff well-being. But effectively transitioning any culture away from smoking requires understanding and alternatives, not just punishment. Supportive cessation programs, nicotine replacements, and motivations like reduced sentences can empower correctional facilities to meet rehabilitative missions in the journey towards smoke-free environments.

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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