Doing time in a California state prison won't be quite the same beginning today. Inmates, once given tobacco and matches along with their...
FOLSOM, Calif. — Doing time in a California state prison won’t be quite the same beginning today. 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 health-care costs and clean air for inmates and officers who don’t like to light up. The Republican assemblyman who pushed the ban last year predicted it would save $280 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 roughly 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.
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Rising tensions also are a worry. When Maine banned smoking in prison in 2000, assaults quadrupled.
At Folsom State Prison east of Sacramento, where the prison 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.
“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 inside the Department of Corrections’ 33 prisons and camps also must abide by the new law.
“We’re offering smoking-cessation classes and other support,” said Matt Kramer, Folsom’s acting warden, “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 for four decades and burns through almost a pack of Winstons a day.
He’s tried to quit a half-dozen times — “the patch, the pills, the cold turkey thing, you name it” — but nothing has worked for long.
“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.”
In recent decades, changing attitudes about smoking risks, along with rising concerns about secondhand smoke, have spawned sharp policy shifts. According to the American Correctional Association, 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 served 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 the recreation yard, on the way to job assignments and in all other outdoor areas.
At the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, which banned smoking for inmates three years ago, spokeswoman Lt. Shelly Thompson said the ban had produced a dramatic decrease in respiratory ailments. At Folsom, inmates said anxiety had settled over the cellblocks in recent weeks. Cigarettes, they said, relieve boredom and soothe nerves in a place of volatile tempers and unpredictable moods. “A lot of these guys, they’ve been smoking 20 or 30 years and then boom, they take their tobacco away,” said Mario Avila, 45, a prisoner from East Los Angeles who does not smoke. “It’s like taking a baby’s bottle away.”
Avila stocks shelves in the prison canteen, where sales of candy bars and other snack foods have soared since tobacco was removed. California prisons sold more than $5.4 million in smoking products a year, generating about $1.4 million in tobacco and sales taxes.
Inmates asked the canteens to stock nicotine gum, but were rejected because gum could be used to jam locks and create other security problems. Instead, at Folsom, officials are promoting 10-cent Tootsie Pops and offering smoking-cessation classes.
In another development:
A federal judge yesterday said he will appoint an independent overseer for California’s prison health-care system, so plagued with problems that basic sanitation is lacking and examinations are sometimes performed on cell floors.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson called the nation’s largest inmate health-care system “terribly broken. … We’re dealing literally with life and death.”
The judge is expected to appoint a monitor during a hearing July 8, when he also will set the scope and duration of the oversight.
Information on the federal judge’s actions was provided by The Associated Press