The coin of the realm in the Big House - as penitentiaries are inevitably called in prison films - isn't money. Prisoners make only a tiny amount for their labor and are not allowed other valuables.
Instead, they gamble and barter for supplies using . . . cigarettes.
But not so much in real life any more. Last year, pressured by health advocates, officials banned smoking - even in exercise yards - in the nation's 115 federal prisons. And state pens - even in places like Florida, where inmates used to make cigarettes and were given free smokes any time they wanted them - are beginning to follow suit.
They do so in the name of improving inmate health and cutting the cost of treating prisoners with lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases.
As a result of the no-smoking policy, arrests of guards as well as visitors for smuggling cigarettes have risen. According to KABC Television in Los Angeles, a contraband pack of 20 cigarettes - which would cost $6 or $7 outside prison walls - can fetch up to $125 on the inside. A cook caught at Folsom State Prison told authorities he made more money sneaking in cigarettes than he did at his job.
In neighboring Nevada, which put a prison smoking ban in effect this month, the head of the employee union said he worries that inmates forced to quit "cold turkey" will turn even testier than they are already. And other correctional unions complain that officers must walk far outside prison walls in all sorts of weather to reach a place where they are allowed to light up.
Of course, for most everyone else in these facilities, stepping outside for a smoke is not an option!
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.