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Prison Bans Inmate Smoking

Tobacco: Prohibition at facility in San Luis Obispo disrupts a system of barter behind bars. Some predict a black market.


SAN FRANCISCO — In the convict lexicon, cigarettes have always been "coin"--the behind-bars currency that can buy inmates everything from toothpaste to toilet paper. Now a pack of prison smokes seems destined to become something else: contraband.

On Monday, the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo became the second state prison since May to order all inmates to kick their cigarette habits cold turkey. That means no smoking in cells, public buildings or even the exercise yard.

Citing rising health-care costs, a national vilification of smokers and inmates' complaints about secondhand fumes, prison officials have joined a nationwide trend toward cigarette prohibitions.

Seventeen states have snuffed out tobacco use in prisons. Another 31 states, including California, and the federal government have partial bans that include most public buildings on prison grounds.

Similar bans have resulted in unrest and unforeseen complications at several prisons--including one in California where protesting prisoners refused to leave their cells.

In a prison culture where about 75% of inmates smoke--where cigarettes calm tightly strung nerves--the ban will force Men's Colony officials onto untested ground.

"Many inmates have smoked since they were teens," said Lt. Larry Vizard. "Now that release won't be there. We don't know how they'll adjust."

But states with total smoking bans know: Cagey convicts will go into business as tobacco quickly becomes a hot commodity on the prison black market--sometimes selling for $60 a smoke.

Inmates have run lucrative schemes--sometimes involving prison personnel--to smuggle tobacco, officials say. In some states, the bans have brought new assaults involving cranky convicts going through withdrawal and others attacked for their inability to repay black market cigarette debts.

Where cigarettes aren't available, inmates smoke whatever they can find, including orange rinds and apple peels, rolling them in toilet paper and pages torn from books.

Peter Herring, a commander at the Maine Correctional Center, said a cigarette ban imposed two years ago on the prison's 600 inmates had brought instant--though unintended--results. "We immediately created 600 entrepreneurs," he said. "It was like the alcohol prohibition of the 1930s. Bang. There was a new illegal market."

He said prison assaults also quadrupled.

Even as word of the impending ban circulated through the San Luis Obispo prison in May, Men's Colony inmates began gearing up for a brisk trade in everything from canned tobacco to spent cigarette butts, which are recycled and sold as bottom-shelf smokes. When the prison canteen also stopped selling cigarettes, tobacco tins that once sold for $11 began bringing as much as $75 on the inmate black market, convicts say.

Where inmates once plied even strangers with cigarettes, many now hoard tobacco.

So far, state corrections officials have left the decision to totally ban inmate smoking up to each prison and only the Men's Colony and Wasco State Prison have made the move. But as California's 30 other prisons watch to see how the ban works, inmates are already searching for other diversions to break the monotony behind bars.

"Bless their hearts, the people who came up with this," said one Men's Colony inmate, Richard Brainard. "I'd like to strangle them."

Corrections officials want to reduce prison health-care costs, which run more than $1 billion a year in California.

The prison already bans smoking in its reception center--where inmates are housed temporarily until transferred to other facilities--and most incoming inmates arrive from smoke-free county jails.

"Many inmates go months without smoking in jail," said Vizard. "And here we were letting them go right back to their old ways."

Sneaking cigarettes after smoking was banned in cells years ago, inmates started costly fires when they stuck paper clips into electrical outlets for sparks to light up.

But the smoking ban includes what inmates say is a double standard: Prison staff members can still smoke.

If the goal was to cut health-care costs, said inmate Randy Bishop, officials should also ban the practice among guards, who also fall under a taxpayer-funded health plan. "Do it for everybody," he said, "not just inmates."

Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections, said double standards are part of prison life. "Our officers aren't doing time," he said. "And we've got a lot worse drug problems [among the prison population] than inmates who can't get a cigarette. While nicotine withdrawal is bad, it's not the end of the world."

Officials will offer smoking cessation counseling and nicotine patches to those with severe withdrawal. "And we're going to give sensitivity training to staff so they won't flaunt smoking in front of inmates," said Vizard, the Men's Colony spokesman.

Critics contend the ban is more about control than about public health.

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