Ohio prisons study link between violence, tobacco

By: The Associated Press | 01/22/12 1:44 PM
The Associated Press

Ohio’s top prison official has asked his department to investigate whether an increase in violence is linked to a tobacco ban and the subsequent use of contraband tobacco as a commodity among inmates.

“Tobacco has become a currency that’s used in our prisons,” with a hand-rolled cigarette valued at up to $5, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Gary Mohr told the Dayton Daily News .

The department’s chief security-threat investigator, Vinko Kucinic, said gangs can gain power in prison by controlling the trade of contraband goods that are can be sold or used to barter, such as the tobacco, illegal drugs and weapons. Officials are concerned that the fight to control the flow of such goods has stirred more violence.

Prisons Director Gary Mohr is looking into whether disturbances involving at least four inmates were connected to illicit tobacco. Those incidents happened on average once every 28 days in 2008 and once every two weeks by 2010, the year after the ban took effect, Mohr said.

“I could not fathom what was going on in our system,” said Mohr, a former prison official who worked in private-sector prisons before he became director a year ago.

The tobacco ban had been instituted in 2009 in an effort to help reduce inmate health care costs. Mohr said he would have to weigh the severity of the violence against the benefits of the tobacco ban before deciding whether to lift it.

The chief investigator at the Warren Correctional Institution near Lebanon said tobacco has become the preferred contraband item, and inmates aren’t the only ones who see that.

“It’s very, very profitable,” investigator Mark Stegemoller said. “We just removed a staff member a couple months ago who was making a lot of money bringing in tobacco.”

The contraband problem isn’t new to the prisons system, which contains more than 50,000 inmates at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1.5 billion, the newspaper said. But there are indications that the tobacco ban and other changes have contributed to the violence.

One complicating factor is that outsiders have become bolder about tossing prohibited items over perimeter fences for inmates to pick up, especially at sites in Dayton, Lima and elsewhere where the grounds are near publicly accessible areas, Mohr said. Another factor is that the influx of younger, more technology-savvy inmates apparently is boosting the trading of cellphones, which can be used to coordinate contraband schemes and other criminal activity.


Information from: Dayton Daily News, http://www.daytondailynews.com

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