How Prison Helped Me Quit Smoking

MASON, TENNESSEE – I thought stopping a 50-year smoking habit was impossible. A pack a day of non-filter Camel cigarettes for five decades is hard to quit. Even after a doctor told me that on a chest X-ray my lungs looked like two dried prunes.

I tried everything to stop: nicotine patches, Nicorette gum, hypnotism, monster willpower, you name it, I tried it, to no avail. The camel kept his nose in the tent.

Then I was charged with violating parole and found out that the first jail I went to was a no-smoking facility. I stayed there a week without a cigarette. I was going nuts, but by the sixth and seventh day I had calmed down some. By then I would pass two or three hours without thinking about a smoke.

After a week, the Corrections Corporation of America came and transported me to one of their privately run prisons in Mason, Tennessee. It's also a no-smoking facility.

I thought I'd see a bunch of inmates going crazy from nicotine withdrawal. I couldn't have been more wrong. There is something about being locked up and knowing that you can't smoke that has a calming effect on the nerves. Then again, tobacco is available here.

I wasn't even settled in before a convict asked me if I wanted to buy a cigarette. He said that, actually, it was just some tobacco that I could roll myself. The price was $3, payable in items that we purchase here at the canteen.

I asked him if I got a rolling paper with the deal, and he said no.

"But that's no problem," he told me. "There are plenty of Bibles here, and the pages make excellent rolling papers."

I'm not a religious person, but books are icons to me – I've written several of them myself. Bibles are books, after all, and I couldn't possibly tear one up and smoke it. Besides that, at $3 a stick, I can't afford enough smokes to keep me from wanting one, so I declined.

Regular cigarettes sell here for $50 a pack. Each cigarette is then broken down so that three rollups can be made from it. So a pack of cigarette brings $180 in canteen items.

Despite the high price, the demand always outstrips the supply. Someone's always looking to buy a cigarette. There aren't any matches in here but there are transistor radio batteries. The spark is made by applying steel wool and toilet paper to the radio battery.

One convict told me he buys a pack of cigarettes for $50 and smokes them all himself. He said a pack lasts him five or six days.

"Quite a few of us do that," he told me. "It cuts down the chance of getting told on, and most of the men who sell smokes do get told on eventually."

If a con is caught with tobacco, he goes straight to isolation. It's usually 15 days for the first offense and 30 for the second. Ironically, sometimes a man is put in isolation for smoking by the guard who sold him the cigarettes.

There was some excitement in the cellblock here a few nights ago when the police ran in and grabbed a guy accused of selling tobacco. They also detained an officer who was accused of bringing in the contraband and escorted him off the premises. We know the inmate is in isolation. We don't know the fate of the guard.

One inmate who is broke sells his tray of food to save up enough money to buy cigarettes now and then. But the food is so bad that he can get only 60 cents a tray. So he has to sell five meals before he can smoke. I've seen times when I was glad to go hungry for a cigarette, but not that hungry.

It's been two months for me now. Yesterday, a man offered me a drag from a Bible-page rollup. I told him: "I don't smoke." Man, it felt good saying that after 50 years.

I never thought jail would do anything positive for me, but there's a no-smoking program here that works. I wouldn't advise it, though, until you've tried everything else.

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