Prison's Booming Tobacco Market

By Seth Ferranti 05/10/13

A prisoner explains how inmates can make a killing selling tobacco for up to 120X its worth.

More profitable than heroin behind bars.
Photo via

Tobacco products, outlawed in the federal prison system since 2005, have become the most coveted contraband item behind bars. With a profitability that rivals illegal drugs, and far less severe penalties for those who are caught, more prisoners and guards are willing to take the risk to smuggle them inside. "It costs 40 books of stamps [valued at $6 each] for a pouch of Bugler [rolling tobacco]," a prisoner tells The Fix. "You can get 80 roll ups out of the pouch and sell them for a book each. That's $240.00 for a pouch of Bugler, that costs around $2.00 on the street." Not only is the profit margin staggering, but the penalties for getting caught with tobacco are much less severe than for harder drugs. "Why would I hustle dope or weed, when I can sell smokes and make just as much money?" the prisoner explains. The Bureau of Prisons uses a uniform disciplinary system where "series shots" of 100 and 200 are issued for high category offenses, and 300 and 400 are issued for moderate to low rule violations. "If I get busted with a pouch, its only a 300 series shot—the same as if I get busted for stealing vegetables out of the chow hall," the prisoner says. "But a 100 series shot for drugs is the same as if I stabbed someone." Tobacco moves fast inside, because "everybody smokes," the prisoner says. And most corrections officers, many who also smoke themselves, will turn a blind eye to cigarettes. "I mean what's the big deal?" says the prisoner. "It's tobacco, it's legal. They used to sell cigarettes in here."

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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