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Prison Smoking Ban Likely to Bring a Pack of Changes

Health costs should decline, but violence and a black market in tobacco are probable.

June 30, 2005|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

FOLSOM, Calif. — Doing time in a California state prison won't be quite the same beginning Friday. All inmates, once given tobacco and matches along with their prison blues and toothbrush, will now be forbidden to smoke.

Born of legislation passed last year, the tobacco ban was sold as a boon that would offer a big drop in prison healthcare costs and clean air for inmates and officers who didn't like to light up. The Republican assemblyman who pushed the ban last year predicted that it would save at least $265 million a year.

Judging from the experience of other states -- and reports from a few California prisons that are already smoke-free -- health costs will go down. But their experience also shows that forcing inmates to kick the habit has downsides.

One is the birth of a black market for tobacco -- and the smuggling, extortion and violence that accompany it. With about half of the state's 163,000 inmates addicted to nicotine, tobacco demand will prompt scores of entrepreneurs to begin selling the newest contraband behind bars, prison officials say.

Rising tensions are also a worry.

When Maine banned smoking in prison in 2000, assaults quadrupled.

At Folsom State Prison east of Sacramento, where the canteen stopped selling tobacco earlier this year, an underground economy is now in full swing. A tin of Bugler -- which retailed for about $11 in May -- now goes for $200 on the cellblock, convicts say. Lighters, matches and rolling papers command similarly inflated prices.

And inmates say a network of tobacco brokers, middlemen and enforcers -- assigned to ensure that prisoners pay their tobacco debts -- is taking shape.

"It's crazy, you know what I mean?" said Michael Johnson, 45, a bespectacled inmate from Stockton struggling to kick a 20-cigarette-a-day habit. "Tobacco is gonna be more valuable than dope."

Inmates aren't the only ones who will be forced to snuff out their smokes. More than 30,000 employees in the Department of Corrections' 33 prisons and camps must also abide by the new law.

Unlike workers in many other jobs, most corrections employees are tied to posts deep within the bowels of prisons and cannot easily step off the property for a cigarette break. Folsom's acting warden, Matt Kramer, said that although many nonsmoking employees welcomed the ban, those who enjoyed a midday puff would have it rough.

"We're offering smoking-cessation classes and other support," he said, "but it will require a lot of patience by all of us to get through this transition."

Capt. Tom Lemke figures he'll need more than patience. At 54, the lanky, lifelong corrections employee has been smoking four decades and burns through almost a pack of Winstons a day.

He's tried to quit half a dozen times -- "the patch, the pills, the cold turkey thing, you name it" -- but nothing has worked for long. Now, as he confronts the coming battle, his face bears a look that's equal parts dread and resignation.

"I'm not looking forward to it," Lemke said one recent morning, hunched over his desk just off the main Folsom Prison yard. "Then again, my doctor's been telling me that one day, smoking's gonna kill me, so maybe it's for the best."

For Lemke and other veterans who walk the line, the smoking ban feels especially odd. They began working behind bars in an era when the state handed out pouches of tobacco -- along with rolling papers and other paraphernalia -- to incoming convicts.

But in recent decades, changing attitudes about smoking risks, along with rising concerns about secondhand smoke, have spawned a sharp policy shift.

Today, according to the American Correctional Assn., every state has a full or partial ban on smoking on prison grounds. Some bar tobacco for inmates but not staff; others limit smoking only inside buildings but permit it outside.

Until now, smoking was forbidden, for convicts only, at eight of California's 33 prisons: those that serve as medical facilities or as reception centers for incoming inmates. At the rest, prisoners could not smoke in their cells but were allowed to light up in recreation yards, on the way to job assignments and in all other outdoor areas.

California corrections officials -- and the legislator who sponsored the law -- believe that the state's decision to impose a complete smoking ban will pay off.

Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) calls his bill a "win, win, win," saying it will mean longer and healthier lives for inmates and staff. Critics say that smoking was one of the few privileges remaining behind bars and that cigarettes help calm the incarcerated. Leslie, a former smoker, calls that poppycock.

"We actually have a responsibility when these men and women are in custody to provide a healthy lifestyle for them," he said. "And if they don't smoke, they're not going to have these negative health impacts that are running up high medical costs in these institutions."

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