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Without Smokes, There May Be Fire

Inmates and staff unite to postpone a ban on smoking in Washington state prisons. They say it will spawn violence and a tobacco black market.

June 28, 2004|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

MONROE, Wash. — Inmate Joseph Nissensohn explains why cigarettes are good for him: They give him something to do 12 times a day. They provide an inexpensive pleasure. They keep him calm.

Without them, he says, prison would be hell.

His prison guards agree. In an unlikely alliance, inmates and corrections officers in the Washington state prison system have successfully delayed a smoking ban that was supposed to go into effect Thursday. It is the second such delay.

Guards and prisoners share the same concern: Forcing inmates to quit smoking cold turkey could create mass tension and lead to an increase in violence.

The ban is meant to protect the health of inmates and corrections officers, many of whom are nonsmokers forced to breathe secondhand smoke in poorly ventilated areas. It is a policy adopted by more and more states -- so far at least 17 forbid smoking in prison.

But guards in Washington say they are worried for their safety, and inmates say a ban would fuel an underground economy of smuggled tobacco -- one that would in effect turn it into a hyper-valued currency.

Inmates can now buy cigarettes in the commissaries and are allowed to smoke in many areas of the prisons.

The postponement is seen by some as a union effort to derail the ban, while prison officials say the delay was needed to prepare for the transition. The new start date for the ban is Nov. 1.

"There'll be trouble -- I can guarantee you that," said Nissensohn, 53, an inmate at the Monroe Corrections Complex for the last 14 years. Nissensohn, a smoker for more than three decades, is serving a sentence for second-degree murder.

Derrick Cleary, 23, in prison for robbery, said prison was a place where "a whole bunch of angry people live together. There are people in here always on the edge. Take away their cigarettes, and you'll push them over the edge."

Nissensohn and Cleary are two of 16,400 inmates in Washington state prisons. Officials estimate that at least 60% of Washington inmates smoke. National studies show that as many as 80% of people incarcerated in jails or prisons smoke cigarettes.

"It's a safety issue," said Leonard Smith, a chief organizer of Teamsters Local 117, the union that represents about 5,000 prison workers. The union negotiated the delay with the state Department of Corrections, which had originally planned to start the ban in January.

"I watched my mother quit smoking," Smith said. "She's not a violent criminal, but I wouldn't want to live through that again.

"Here the state is telling thousands of criminals, many of them violent, to stop smoking cold turkey. We just want to make sure the state is prepared for what might happen."

State officials say they are taking the long view. After a period of adjustment, they say, a smoke-free work and living environment for guards and inmates will save lives and money by reducing illness. Washington spends about $1.2 million a month for inmate healthcare, an undetermined amount of which goes to treat smoking-related illnesses.

"Everyone knows smoking causes cancer. Even smokers know it's bad for them," said Lynne DeLano, assistant deputy corrections secretary, who is in charge of carrying out the smoking ban. "We're confident it's the right thing to do for all the right reasons."

States that forbid smoking in prisons include Oregon and Montana. Legislators in California have tried and failed to pass a prison smoking ban. Nearly half of the state's 160,000 prisoners smoke, costing California an estimated $280 million a year in healthcare costs.

In Oregon, the smoking ban was phased in over one year. First the prisons stopped selling tobacco in the commissaries. Then inmates were prohibited from smoking in their cells, and later outside too. On Jan. 1, 1996, Oregon prisons became smoke-free, but not without trouble.

In the months following the ban, there was an increase in assaults on guards, a rise in disciplinary actions against inmates, and a series of fires set and bomb threats made inside the prison. There was one homicide, said Perrin Damon, spokeswoman for Oregon state prisons.

The agitation diminished over time. Damon said the ban, in effect for eight years, had largely been a success.

DeLano said she expected similar results in Washington.

"Sure, they'll be edgy for a week or two," she said. "But it'll subside and life will go on."

DeLano said prisons would offer snacks, such as carrot sticks and popcorn, as alternatives to cigarettes. There will also be smoking-cessation classes and nicotine patches for those who want them, including guards. The ban would prohibit guards from smoking in the prison as well, although they would be allowed to chew tobacco.

She said that while the number of guards would not be increased to handle potential violence -- something the union wanted -- the amount of time for inmate recreation could be temporarily increased "to help them get over the smoking jitters."

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