Antismoking Campaign Lands in Prison
But no one is asking inmates, 'Sir, do you want a smoking cell or a nonsmoking cell?' Instead, cigarettes are banned completely.
BOSTON — The antismoking movement, which has succeeded in banning smoking in virtually every public building in the country, is now getting prison inmates to kick the habit.
Massachusetts this month became the latest in a growing number of states that have banned smoking in their prison facilities. While some prisons have tamped out cigarettes for health and safety reasons, others have taken action because nonsmoking inmates are contesting - often in court - having to bunk with smokers.
Inmates and prisoner-rights groups say outright bans are unduly cruel - especially at a time when budget cuts are eliminating other privileges. Some contend, too, that prohibiting tobacco products entirely creates a prison market for contraband cigarettes - forcing guards into the role of cigarette police. Estimates are that between half and three-quarters of prisoners smoke.
But supporters maintain that banning smoking will help cut soaring prison health-care costs, as well as improve the environment for inmates and staff members.
"You can get sentenced to any number of years [because of a crime], but one shouldn't get sentenced to tobacco smoke," says Richard Daynard, chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University in Boston, an antismoking public-advocacy group.
A landmark 1993 US Supreme Court decision, in favor of a convicted murderer who sought a nonsmoking environment in prison, has propelled a handful of lawsuits by prisoners who don't smoke.
As a result, nearly half of all states now regulate prison smoking in some manner. A handful of states, including Texas, Utah, and Kansas, ban smoking entirely. New York City is also in the process of imposing an absolute ban on its 20,000 inmates.
The Massachusetts smoking ban is the result of a recently settled class-action lawsuit. The state has banned smoking inside all its facilities, allowing prisoners to smoke outside in designated areas only. At two prisons, where inmates have limited out-of-cell time, smoking is banned inside and out.
Before the state yanked prisoners' smoking privileges, however, it investigated other options. But upgrading prison ventilation systems would have cost millions, says Tony Carnevale, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction. "That is absolutely cost-prohibitive. If we're going to spend money, it's going to be on new construction," he says, noting that the state's 11,000-inmate system is well over capacity.
Officials also are considering discontinuing the practice of selling cigarettes at prison commissaries, Mr. Carnevale says.
But experience elsewhere has shown that, in those cases, cigarette smuggling has often ensued among inmates and sometimes even guards - increasing rather than decreasing the value of what is a standard "currency" used by prison inmates.
When Vermont banned smoking and all tobacco products from its 1,000-inmate system, the result was a huge demand for contraband cigarettes, says John Murphy, superintendent of the state's Department of Correction. A year later, the DOC commissioner relented, allowing prisoners to have access to tobacco and permitting smoking in designated areas outside.
Prison officials also see a ban as one way to reduce health-care costs. A recent survey shows that state and federal prisons spend $2.3 billion a year on inmate health care, according to the Corrections Compendium, a monthly journal that tracks criminal-justice trends.
The antismoking trend has been slowed somewhat by concerns that forcing inmates to quit "cold turkey" would lead to organized disturbances, says Mr. Daynard. But correction officials say most transitions have been smooth.
Indeed, many prisons provide a wide range of approaches to help prisoners kick the habit - everything from group counseling and nicotine patches to carrots and candy bars. Massachusetts, for example, is offering smoking-cessation programs to its prisoners.
"It's a difficult issue because it's tough either way," says Jenni Gainsborough at the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project in Washington. While nonsmokers should not have to be subjected to smokers, she says, "prisons are a very stressful place." So if an inmate feels he gets some relaxation from smoking, more allowances should be made to accommodate that person, she says.
The Washington-based Tobacco Institute, a trade association for tobacco manufacturers, is "neutral" on the issue, says spokesman Thomas Lauria. It's understandable that criminals lose privileges when they go to prison, he says, but the institute contests banning smoking for health reasons.