Inmates Explain the Cannabis Trade in Prison

By Felix Reyes on October 19, 2017

If you are a prison inmate in California trying to maintain a regular habit of smoking cannabis, you will probably need a whole lot of patience and a little bit of luck.

In prison, time is simultaneously viewed as a commodity, a luxury and a burden to endure, and the management of time becomes an acquired skill for those able to maintain their sanity within the confines of the prison system. For the dedicated cannabis aficionado, being able to procure and smoke good cannabis can often be a challenge all to itself, but not an impossible challenge. 

Sean Coleman is a 28-years-old inmate halfway through an eight-year sentence for a possession charge. The police busted him holding two pounds of high quality kush, which was a violation of his probation for grand theft auto. As a result, he had to serve the remainder of his suspended sentence for the GTA case, and with good behavior, he may be free in less than two years. That's still a long time for cannabis enthusiast. 

"When I smoke, it gives me a mental calm that allows me to not let this time grind me down," Sean mused in an interview with PRØHBTD. Sean is currently in a low-security prison near Norco, California, but until eight months ago, he was housed in a high-security prison (i.e., level three, with level four being the highest). 

"In high security, we all live in small cells, and we stay locked down at least 20 to 22 hours a day," he continued. "There is not a lot of contact with other inmates, and in the nearly two years I was there, I think I was able to come across some cannabis maybe four times, and only once was it what would be considered high grade. The other times it was basically Colombian or Mexican sinse[milla] with a lot of seeds."

He sounds like a farmer talking about a bad drought.

"Lighters were almost impossible to come by, and even so there were smoke alarms in the cells and correction officers walking by every 20 to 30 minutes, so I would just put a little piece of a bud in my hot tea and use it that way," Sean explained. "It was what it was, so you appreciated whatever came your way. There was a guy who was able to get very small amounts every four or five months when his wife came for conjugal visits, and I was just lucky that I was one of the people who was able to buy small pinner joints from him for 10 bucks."

Sean seems to be a lot happier now at his new low-security location.

"At this place we got about 100 guys living in dormitory-style housing units, the rec yard is about five acres, and we can usually access it from sun up to sundown. There are a lot of opportunities to acquire good cannabis from maybe five or six different guys who are able to get it every week or two," he said with a trace of a smile that possibly has him thinking about lighting up sometime after we are done talking.

Another inmate at the same low-security institution goes by the name of Dee, and he is a self-proclaimed self-employed businessman. He likens himself to the Morgan Freeman character in The Shawshank Redemption who can get almost anything for a price.

"My main business is cellphones," he claimed, adding that a small group of loyal business associates helps him. "High-quality kush is something I like to smoke personally, and even though it is not as profitable as other items the prison staff deems contraband, especially tobacco and cell phones, I still like to bring some good kush in when I can. Whatever me and my friends do not smoke, I sell for about $20 a gram, which is a far better price than what you would find in a higher security prison where it is more difficult to obtain."

When asked how an inmate would go about arranging payment for said cannabis in a world where inmates are not allowed cash, I was given a quick tutorial in prison economics and barter. 

"The first way would be to have your friends or family on the streets transfer cash via Green Dot or prepaid Visa cards to my friend or family member on the street," Dee answered. "Once I confirm that the payment has been made, I release the cannabis to you. The second way is by trade. I would give an inmate a list of items I want from the commissary, maybe jars of coffee, personal hygiene items, food, etc., and I would trade the inmate for an equal value of cannabis."

Dee spoke with the confidence of someone who, in another lifetime, could have easily prospered as a Wall Street trader or even as a successful used car salesman. He liked to think himself a "free-market capitalist," a term he picked up in the prison library, a place he claims to spend a lot of time in when he is not working to make sure inmates are well supplied with cellphones and cannabis.

Renee, a corrections officer working in the prison system for more than 10 years, works in a special unit that attempts to reduce contraband in the prison. However, the confiscation of cannabis and the punishment of those who engage in smoking it have never been a main concern for her and her colleagues.

"Our main concern is usually weapons, hard drugs and reducing the numbers of illegal cellphones, though that does not mean I will give you a free pass if I catch you with cannabis, especially if it is a large  amount," she told PRØHBTD. 

Renee noted that a very small number of officers have the responsibility to supervise more than 4,500 inmates, which is a daunting task even during the most mellow of times.

"Usually you can smell it a little bit when people are smoking on the yard, but most smart inmates will take a few puffs while they are walking through a secluded part of the yard and then put it out so that the smell doesn't linger," she continued. "So you can only just catch a whiff here and there."

Renee emphasized that she doesn't make the rules and she is just doing her job when she enforces them, but she is aware that a lot of inmates who smoke cannabis regularly claim it helps keep their moods mellow. Cannabis typically works well as a behavioral modifier for inmates who would normally be apt to engage in violent or disruptive behavior.

"Maybe that's something that prison officials and doctors will look into one day because, if it's true, it would surely make my job a lot easier." 

Still, if she caught you with cannabis today, depending on the amount you're found holding, the penalties could range from an additional 90 days added to your sentence, a loss of time off for good  behavior, temporary restrictions on receiving visits or using the prison commissary, or getting hit with additional work detail.

"If an inmate wants to smoke, they have got to weigh the risks against the rewards," she added.

Both Sean and Dee claimed the rewards outweigh the risks because they both feel regular cannabis use is psychologically beneficial in a place like prison. 

"It keeps me from hard timing, and that's important," Sean proclaimed. 

"Hard timing" is prison slang for when an inmate appears to be worn down and unable to confront the reality of doing time. The signs include being easily annoyed and irritable and usually unable to get along with other inmates or loved ones on the street.

"It is like they are a walking time bomb, and the smallest thing will set them off," he added. 

Dee agreed, saying, "Cannabis is the one thing that helps keep me mellow and grounded in reality. I know that one day I will be back out there with my family, and the cannabis helps me to focus on the positive thoughts of the future as opposed to the negative reality of the present."

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