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Published: Monday, 1/23/2012

Prison violence suspected tied to tobacco ban

Ohio prison chief seeks investigation

ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLUMBUS -- Ohio's top prison official has asked for an investigation of whether an increase in violence is linked to a tobacco ban and the subsequent trading of contraband tobacco 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 can be sold or used to barter, such as tobacco, illegal drugs, and weapons. Officials worry that the fight to control the flow of such goods has stirred violence.

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

"I could not fathom what was going on in our system," said Mr. 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. Mr. Mohr said he would weigh the severity of the violence against the benefits of the tobacco ban.

The chief investigator at the Warren Correctional Institution near Lebanon in southwest Ohio said tobacco has become the preferred contraband item."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 a year. But there are indications that changes including the tobacco ban have contributed to the violence.

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



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