Prison Smoking Ban Likely to Bring a Pack of Changes

Times Staff Writer

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.”

At the California Men’s Colony, a prison near San Luis Obispo that prohibited smoking for inmates three years ago, spokeswoman Lt. Shelly Thompson said the ban had produced a dramatic decrease in respiratory ailments among inmates, although prison officials have no figures on cost savings.


Oregon has reported similar results. There, a ban was phased in beginning in 1995. Spokeswoman Perrin Damon said that after some initial disturbances, including four fires set in protest, the ban had been a “big success,” delivering a significant -- though undocumented -- drop in medical expenses.

Damon said that Oregon had also saved money on maintenance costs -- mostly from a reduced need to paint yellowed walls and repair ventilation equipment -- and that the ban had made housing assignments for inmates much easier.

“We did it gradually, and we offered inmates veggie trays, half-priced nicotine patches, classes and other things at the beginning,” she said. “We think it was a great decision.”

But along with the savings, states where smoking has been prohibited for some time report elaborate, illegal distribution networks, with enterprising inmates obtaining tobacco from staff or visitors and then hiring assistants to roll and sell cigarettes.

In some instances, spouses may pass tobacco-filled balloons into their husbands’ mouths while kissing in visiting rooms. At San Luis Obispo, relatives have made drops of tobacco that are retrieved by inmates on crews cleaning up community beaches or parks, Thompson said.

Inmates caught with tobacco can face temporary losses of privileges, extra work duty or, with second or third offenses, time added to their sentences. For staff members who deal tobacco, the penalty can range from temporary pay cuts to dismissal.


But given the high price that cigarettes can fetch, the temptation to traffic is hard to resist. At the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, for example, where smoking by inmates has been banned since 1998, a can of loose tobacco can produce a profit of up to $500, officials estimate.

At Folsom, inmates said a mood of 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. Inmates suddenly forced to give up a lifelong nicotine habit add a wild card to the mix.

“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 canteen, where sales of candy bars -- Snickers, especially -- and other snack foods have soared since tobacco was removed. Statewide, prisons sold more than $5.4 million in smoking products a year, generating about $1.4 million in tobacco and sales taxes.

Inmates at Folsom asked the canteen to stock nicotine gum but were rejected, because gum could be used to jam locks and create other security problems. Instead, officials are promoting 10-cent Tootsie Pops and offering smoking-cessation classes.

Robert Medina, 54, said he began smoking at age 12. Sporting a gray mustache, a baseball cap and tattooed biceps, the inmate from the Coachella Valley sat glumly in the prison yard one recent day and said the tobacco-free future looked bleak.


“It’s stressful in here,” said Medina, who has “been down 25 years” for armed robbery and kidnapping and is hoping to win a parole date soon. “I’m a model inmate. But you’ve got youngsters in here who are violent, who don’t care about anything. Who knows what they’re going to do?”

Inmates said a state of emergency at the prison -- caused by violence between rival skinhead and Crip gangs -- had complicated the picture. With white and black inmates on “lockdown” status, meaning they rarely leave their cells and have lost all privileges, the Latino prisoners were able to buy up all the tobacco until the canteen ran out.

“They cornered the market,” said inmate Johnson, who is African American. “So now all the other cats are going to have to pay these enormous prices and watch the [Latinos] make a huge profit. And that ain’t gonna go over too good.”