Prisons Brace for Ban on Cigarettes
Take 24,000 robbers, drug addicts, killers and thieves. Add 8,000 stressed prison guards and administrators. Then take away all of their cigarettes.
What happens next?
Maryland prison officials will find out June 30 when, for the first time, smoking will be banned at all state lockups.
"On that date, all tobacco products will be contraband," said Division of Correction spokesman Dave Towers.
The rule applies to inmates and employees, who won't even be allowed to sneak a smoke in the parking lot.
More than 30 states have already banned smoking in prisons, said Jim Turpin, spokesman for the American Correctional Association, but for years, Maryland officials have resisted the change. In fact, Maryland's 25 prisons are the only government structures in the state in which smoking is allowed.
That's because cigarettes play a major role in prison life, officials said. They are calming agents for high-strung nerves, diversions to fill long, monotonous days -- and also a prison's currency. Inmates can't keep money in their cells, so they trade goods and services for packs of smokes, Towers said.
That's part of the reason that Ohio, widely considered to run a progressive prison system, decided against a smoking ban.
"Cigarettes now are the same thing as money in prison," said Joe Andrews, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. "The problem is they would be worth a whole lot more, and people have been stabbed for a pack of cigarettes."
But William W. Sondervan, commissioner of Maryland's Division of Correction, said that while his department understands the ban may cause some problems, officials believe that the ban will solve even more.
The most obvious are health concerns -- not just for the estimated 40 percent of inmates who smoke but also for the 60 percent who don't.
"The secondhand smoke issue is even greater in these kinds of close quarters than in free society," said Richard B. Rosenblatt, director of Patuxent Institution, a secure facility where inmates are sent for treatment.
"They don't go home to their own apartments or houses, and they're separated by nothing but bars," he said.
Patuxent, which is not a part of the Division of Correction, banned smoking in November.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of a dozen inmates who suffer from such conditions as asthma, heart disease and allergies, which has been making its way through the courts for seven years, made that very point.
In that case, Baltimore lawyer Andrew Freeman argued that allowing secondhand smoke in prisons is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.
"From my client's point of view, they were sentenced to be punished by confinement, but they weren't sentenced to death or to cancer or to heart attacks," Freeman argued. He said tests showed high levels of smoke in prison air and in nonsmoking inmates' urine, proving that there was a serious danger.
Matches and lighters, which will also be banned, are potentially deadly items in prison, too. Last March, Rosenblatt said, an inmate lit a fire in his cell, and the smoke ultimately led to the death of an asthmatic man in a cell nearby.
"I wanted lighters and matches out of here more than I wanted cigarettes out of here," Rosenblatt said.
Towers points out, as well, that inmates typically come to state prisons after they've been locked up in local jails, which in Maryland already ban smoking. "It just makes good sense that we follow along," he said.
For weeks, corrections officials have been preparing for the upcoming ban, slowly breaking the news to inmates and staff that their habits must soon come to an end. They've given workers information on smoking cessation programs in the community, trained counselors to teach the same programs to inmates and informed companies that supply cigarettes to prison commissaries that their products will no longer be purchased.
"We're going very carefully, very delicately," Sondervan said.
That's what Rosenblatt did. His plan included in-house classes for staff and inmates and a giant supply of lollipops to help them through the cravings. Chewing gum isn't allowed in prisons -- it can be used to ruin locks -- and nicotine patches were deemed a possible health risk, so they will not be available.
Sondervan has implemented many of the same ideas.
Yet no preparations could ensure serenity on the day the Patuxent inmates went cold turkey.
As it turned out, Rosenblatt was surprised how smoothly the change went.
"It was almost as boring as Y2K," he said.
It turns out that kicking the habit in prison might be easier than on the outside. Relapse is a lot less likely when there's no tobacco around to smoke, Towers said.
"A lot of society views prisoners as being different than the rest of us," Freeman said. "Many if not most smokers are concerned about their own health and would like to quit. In the prison environment, it is extremely difficult to quit, given that half the people around you are smoking."
"It was amazing how many people came up and thanked me for doing it, both the nonsmokers and smokers who had been looking for that last excuse to quit," Rosenblatt said.