Smoking ban at Howard's jail

August 31, 1992

Howard County Detention Center was flirting with problems before its director, James Rollins, mandated a smoking ban recently. There have been reports of inmates elsewhere in the country filing suits against authorities, claiming they had been exposed to the harm of second-hand smoke. In addition, some staffers at the Howard center had petitioned officials to do away with smoking already allowed in designated areas.

The final straw came when a handful of inmates who wanted to watch the Olympics past midnight decided to protest an early lock-down by setting nine fires. A similar incident transpired in May.

The fires forced Mr. Rollins to move up the date of the ban, which had been planned for September. But Mr. Rollins says his primary motivation was the issue of second-hand smoke and the detention center's potential liability.

Overall, the ban was probably a good idea. Mr. Rollins has handled the transition to a smoke-free facility well by informing inmates of the ban in advance and offering them assistance to stop smoking. Also, over a period of months, the detention center commissary gradually cut back on the number of cigarette packs inmates could buy.

These were humane steps, but they didn't go far enough. While staff members at the detention center are allowed to go outside to smoke, inmates have nowhere -- inside or out -- to do so.

Mr. Rollins' answer to this disparity is that it is justified because those who must bear the brunt of the ban are incarcerated. The fact is that of the roughly 180 inmates at the detention center, more than 100 have not been convicted but are awaiting a trial or a hearing. Even if they were all convicts, it would not be asking too much to assign a designated area for those who smoke. That would be the humane approach.

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