Inmates in La Grange go without tobacco
After 50 years as a smoker, Jess Hensley is dealing with the jittery nerves of a man who gave up tobacco cold turkey.
Hensley was among more than 1,000 prisoners forced to give up all forms of tobacco when a ban on smoking and chewing went into effect last week at the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange.
"This is a cruel thing to do," said Hensley, a 60-year-old murderer serving a 50-year sentence. "They're trying to create a riot. They want a riot for one reason or another."
Corrections officials in Kentucky, the nation's No. 1 producer of burley tobacco, acknowledge that inmates in one of the state's largest prison are fuming about the decision.
However, Warden Larry Chandler said the aging and oftentimes sickly inmates at the reformatory, which houses most of the state's medically fragile prisoners, shouldn't be using tobacco and need to be shielded from the secondhand smoke of cigarettes, cigars and pipes.
Although tobacco is a key part of the state's economy, Kentucky, like the rest of the nation, has seen a proliferation of smoking bans in offices, public buildings, restaurants and even bars. Prisons are the latest targets, and even some of Kentucky's staunchest opponents of tobacco bans like that idea.
That includes state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, one of the state's most vocal opponents to smoking bans. Arnold has bitterly opposed anti-smoking initiatives in the General Assembly.
He said he has no problem with the prison's no-tobacco policy. He said he supports it as a tough-on-criminals initiative.
Prisons in several states have implemented at least partial bans on smoking. The Kentucky State Reformatory bars even its 500 staff members from using tobacco. Several county jails across the state also have instituted such bans.
Brad Rodu, a pathologist at the University of Louisville who researches tobacco risks, said an all-out ban on tobacco like the one at the state reformatory is unnecessary if it's being done for health reasons.
"It's another example of an anti-tobacco control movement that is simply out of control," Rodu said. "They're just instituting bans without measuring the consequences."
Rodu said the prison could have banned cigarettes but continued to allow smokeless tobacco, which, he said, has far fewer health risks. Smokeless tobacco, he said, would satisfy the cravings for nicotine in a way that patches or gum do not.
"In many studies, researchers have found that up to 60 to 80 percent of inmates smoke," Rodu said. "The anti-tobacco extremists would say that smoking and nicotine use are of no value, and they couldn't be more wrong. People smoke because nicotine does powerful things to our brains. … It gives us a sense of well-being. People use it to help them through their daily lives."
Inmate James Calbough said he quit before the ban took effect, opting for nicotine lozenges to ease his cravings. Most smokers in the prison didn't do that, he said, and now they are scrounging for contraband tobacco. Some inmates, Calbough said, are desperate.
"You can cut the tension with a knife," he said.
Inmate James Holbrook also turned to nicotine lozenges, mint flavored, to ease cravings. Now 42, Holbrook had smoked since he was 14. "I'd much rather have a cigarette," he said.
For the past decade, Kentucky inmates could smoke only outdoors. The reformatory is the first state prison to institute the prison-wide prohibition.
It's not just a matter of personal health, Chandler said, but a matter of fiscal responsibility that could help to cut the $40 million a year the state pays for inmate medical care.
"Above all else, it's the right thing to do," Chandler said, standing next to a stack of nicotine gum, lozenges and patches, which are being made available at reduced prices to inmates struggling through withdrawal. "We can't in good conscience be the medical (prison) facility for the state of Kentucky and allow smoking."
Corrections Commissioner John Rees said the tobacco ban was announced to inmates and staff members more than a year ago, and the state has made smoking-cessation programs available so they could quit gradually.