Snuffing Out Tobacco in Prisons

California has just joined many other states and made its prisons smoke free. A ban on the use of tobacco by inmates, as well as by all correction officers, took effect on July 1.

The reasons are straightforward: Reduce cigarette-related healthcare costs by $280 million a year and provide a smoke-free environment for guards and inmates who don't smoke.

Complaints about this prohibition are already rolling in to justify smoking behind bars. Prisoners argue that life in prison is tough enough, and smokes provide some sort of occasional pleasure. They claim smoking is a way to deal with all the deprivations built into prisons. But lighting up is an illusionary respite from a craving that feeds its own dependency.

California's move, besides being in the long-term health interests of individuals who are wards of the state, should be seen as true rehabilitation. That's a disregarded word in an era of high incarceration rates, mandatory sentencing, and tighter state budgets.

Efforts should be made to help prisoners kick the habit not only because healthcare costs will go down, but because of the self-discipline an inmate gains from no longer smoking. It can be a building block in his or her own personal reformation.

An end to smoking represents acceptance of personal responsibility to better oneself, the single most important value in preventing a return to crime upon release from prison.

Such bans confront prison officials with the possibility of a black market in tobacco - smuggling and extortion, as well as any violence that comes with a failure to pay "cig" debts.

But substance abuse is not a new phenomenon in prisons and given that smoking is not an easily hidden activity, increased vigilance and funding should make the ban enforceable.

Too often in prisons, the keeper is the kept. It's fair to ask: Why has it taken so long to establish the right of prison guards to a smoke-free workplace, when their place of employment is so demanding?

Like Maine, which made inmates go cold turkey on tobacco in 2000, California officials need to provide help to inmates in each of the 33 prisons to cope with an end to any tobacco addiction.

Since 1995, 18 states have totally banned smoking in prisons. The remainder, with the exception of Missouri, have partial bans. These other states should move to full bans. (Federal prisons have a near-total ban on lighted tobacco in 105 prisons holding 180,000 inmates.)

Helping offenders accept responsibility to stop smoking can provide them a personal freedom, and only whet their appetites for greater freedoms.

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