California's ban on tobacco in prisons has ignited a burgeoning black market behind bars, where a pack of smokes can fetch up to $125. Prison officials who already...

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LANCASTER, Calif. — California’s ban on tobacco in prisons has ignited a burgeoning black market behind bars, where a pack of smokes can fetch up to $125.

Prison officials who already have their hands full trying to keep drugs and weapons away from inmates now are spending time tracking down tobacco smugglers, some of whom are guards and other prison employees. Fights over tobacco have erupted: At one Northern California prison, guards had to use pepper spray to break up a brawl among 30 inmates.

The ban was put in place in July 2005 to improve work conditions and cut rising health-care costs among inmates, but it also has led to an explosive growth of tobacco trafficking.

California has the nation’s largest prison population: more than 172,000 adult inmates. While many states limit tobacco use in prisons, California is among only a few that ban all tobacco products and require workers, as well as inmates, to abide by the prohibition.

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Still, tobacco finds its way in.

Sometimes, family and friends are able to secretly pass it to inmates during visits. Other times, inmates assigned to work crews off prison grounds arrange for cohorts outside the prison to leave stashes of tobacco at prearranged drop sites, then smuggle it behind bars.

“A lot of people are trying to make money,” said Devan Hawkes, an anti-gang officer at Pelican Bay State Prison. That includes prison workers.

Last year, a guard was put on leave from California State Prison, Solano, for smuggling tobacco. The guard made several hundred dollars a week selling the contraband, officials say.

At Folsom State Prison, a cook quit last year after he was caught walking onto prison grounds with several plastic bags filled with rolling tobacco in his jacket. He told authorities he was earning more smuggling tobacco — up to $1,000 a week — than he did in his day job.

Unlike illegal drugs, which bring harsh penalties when smuggled into prison, punishments for inmates caught with tobacco usually range from a written warning to extra work duties. Prison employees can lose their jobs, but there’s almost no chance of a criminal prosecution.

In another development: A judge in Sacramento on Tuesday threw out Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to transfer thousands of inmates to other states to relieve prison overcrowding. The governor said he would appeal the ruling, saying dangerous convicts might otherwise have to be released early.

The governor invoked emergency powers in October when he ordered the Corrections Department to send thousands of inmates to private prisons in other states. Two employee unions filed lawsuits claiming the order violated state law.

California’s 33 state prisons were designed for roughly 100,000 inmates but now hold more than 172,000, and a federal judge has given the state until June to reduce overcrowding. Corrections officials had hoped that inmates would volunteer to transfer to other states, but only 460 have done so.

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