Prison Smokescreen

On July 1, California adopted a new policy prohibiting cigarette smoking in all of the state's prisons. The legislation was sold as a way to save millions of dollars in health care costs and improve the health of prisoners. While there is some logic to the pro-health/fiscally responsible rhetoric, this new law won't prevent prisoners from smoking -- but it will increase violence behind bars. Cigarettes are harmful and there are real costs associated with treating cigarette smokers, but this policy is a case of the cure being worse than the disease.

The ban will not eradicate cigarette smoking. It's painfully obvious that prohibition has not rid our society of drugs, be it alcohol in the 1930s or marijuana today. Even putting someone in a prison cell doesn't keep him or her from obtaining and using drugs -- in fact, many inmates report starting to use illegal substances while locked up, out of depression or desperation. Everything that is available on the street is available behind bars, at a very high price -- both in dollars and in lives.

So while these policies do not deliver on their promise to eliminate drugs, they do generate collateral damage. The misperception is that drugs cause crime -- in reality, it is not the substance itself that leads to violence, but prohibition itself that leads to brawls and worse. When alcohol was illegal in the '30s, not only did people drink, but there were shootouts over liquor. Today, no one gets killed over a 12-pack of Budweiser. Same substance, different policies -- and vastly different body counts.

The massive profits associated with illegal drugs attract unsavory characters to the industry. And the same will be true for tobacco: If cigarettes are made illegal inside or outside of prison, there will be murders over the right to sell them.

California is not the first state to pass this type of law. Maine banned smoking in prisons in 2000. The result: assaults quadrupled. In addition to Maine, some prisons in California had already banned smoking before the new policy took effect. According to the Los Angeles Times, the ban on tobacco at Folsom State Prison has sent tobacco prices skyrocketing; a tin that went for $11 in May is now worth $200. The same article reports that there is already a network of tobacco brokers, middlemen and enforcers assigned to collect debts from smokers. One prisoner was quoted saying that tobacco was going to cost more than illegal drugs.

According to the Times, about 50 percent of California's inmates are addicted to cigarettes. Instead of criminalizing a popular coping mechanism, the state should offer addicts a helping hand if they are interested in quitting. Treatments like the nicotine patch or nicotine gum, support groups and exercise programs would all be beneficial. For those who aren't ready to quit completely, going from 20 cigarettes a day to five should be seen as a positive accomplishment.

Relapse is common when one is trying to quit. I have tried to stop smoking cigarettes more than a dozen times. When I start up again I need support and encouragement in order to try quitting again. While peoples’ drug use may be harmful to their health whether they are using illegal or legal drugs, we need to offer them compassion and help in kicking their habit, not a longer stay in a jail cell.

Coincidentally, just last week a federal judge ordered federal authorities to take control of the California prison system's health care program, which the judge described as "barbaric." At least 64 inmates have died preventable deaths as a result of poor health care. If proponents of this new law are truly concerned about prisoners' health, they can start by addressing the state prison system's heath care crisis, instead of pushing an inhumane cigarette prohibition that will cause more harm than good.

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