Antismoking Campaign Lands in Prison but No One Is Asking Inmates, 'Sir, Do You Want a Smoking Cell or a Nonsmoking Cell?' Instead, Cigarettes Are Banned Completely

By Shelley Donald Coolidge, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 1996 | Go to article overview

Antismoking Campaign Lands in Prison but No One Is Asking Inmates, 'Sir, Do You Want a Smoking Cell or a Nonsmoking Cell?' Instead, Cigarettes Are Banned Completely


Shelley Donald Coolidge, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The antismoking movement, which has succeeded in banning smoking in virtually every public building in the country, is now getting prison inmates to kick the habit.

Massachusetts this month became the latest in a growing number of states that have banned smoking in their prison facilities. While some prisons have tamped out cigarettes for health and safety reasons, others have taken action because nonsmoking inmates are contesting - often in court - having to bunk with smokers.

Inmates and prisoner-rights groups say outright bans are unduly cruel - especially at a time when budget cuts are eliminating other privileges. Some contend, too, that prohibiting tobacco products entirely creates a prison market for contraband cigarettes - forcing guards into the role of cigarette police. Estimates are that between half and three-quarters of prisoners smoke. But supporters maintain that banning smoking will help cut soaring prison health-care costs, as well as improve the environment for inmates and staff members. "You can get sentenced to any number of years {because of a crime}, but one shouldn't get sentenced to tobacco smoke," says Richard Daynard, chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University in Boston, an antismoking public-advocacy group. A landmark 1993 US Supreme Court decision, in favor of a convicted murderer who sought a nonsmoking environment in prison, has propelled a handful of lawsuits by prisoners who don't smoke. As a result, nearly half of all states now regulate prison smoking in some manner. A handful of states, including Texas, Utah, and Kansas, ban smoking entirely. New York City is also in the process of imposing an absolute ban on its 20,000 inmates. The Massachusetts smoking ban is the result of a recently settled class-action lawsuit. The state has banned smoking inside all its facilities, allowing prisoners to smoke outside in designated areas only. At two prisons, where inmates have limited out-of-cell time, smoking is banned inside and out. Before the state yanked prisoners' smoking privileges, however, it investigated other options. But upgrading prison ventilation systems would have cost millions, says Tony Carnevale, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction. "That is absolutely cost-prohibitive. …

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