Hard time just got even harder

June 14, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

In the heat of summer, Maryland officials are snuffing out one of the few pleasures a state prisoner may still enjoy in his cell -- smoking.

Starting July 1, inmates will no longer be allowed to light up anywhere inside the state's 24 prisons, according to a directive issued by Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The policy was instituted to comply with the statewide workplace smoking ban that went into effect in March. Prison officials filed for a variance to the ban several months ago to buy time to work out a policy and get inmates used to the idea.

"There's going to be problems with this," said Nancy Moran, a volunteer with the Prisoners Aid Association of Maryland Inc., who frequently corresponds with prisoners. "It is a workplace for the officers, but it is a living place for the inmates."

Prisoners still will be able to smoke when they are outside for recreation or jobs. At some newer prisons, inmates walk outside regularly to get to and from dining areas, so their opportunities to smoke could be frequent. But they will not be able to step outside whenever the urge strikes.

At others -- like the state's highest security prison, Supermax -- convicts are rarely allowed outside.

About 52 percent of the state's more than 20,000 inmates are thought to be smokers.

Dr. Anthony Swetz, an assistant commissioner of the state Division of Correction, said that although some inmates may not be happy, they have not reacted violently to the approaching restrictions.

Still, he said, "it all worries me. Potential volatility, I think, with the addition of this [ban] is at its all-time high."

He expects litigation from prisoners who will argue that banning smoking in cells -- called one's "house" in prison vernacular -- violates their constitutional rights.

What's more, a reduction in cigarette sales at prison commissaries could deprive inmate programs of funds, leaving prisoners with more smokeless time to fill.

Commissary, or "prison store," sales benefit the Inmate Welfare Fund, which pays for unbudgeted activities and equipment. Cigarette sale proceeds make up a sizable portion of the fund, Dr. Swetz said.

Cigarettes will still be sold inside Maryland prisons for outdoor use, but sales are expected to go down.

Correctional officers, who have been prohibited from smoking in prisons since 1992, are elated, said Herbert Berry Jr. of the Maryland Correctional Union.

"We feel that if there's going to be a smoking ban that law-abiding citizens have to follow, so should convicted felons," he said.

Maryland is not the first prison system to limit when prisoners may light up. The Texas Board of Criminal Justice banned tobacco from its facilities in March. Dr. Swetz said he had been told that on the black market in those prisons, a single cigarette sells for $5.

Several jails in Maryland have been smoke-free for some time, though prisoners spend relatively little time there compared with the state prisons that are their homes for years. The policy would hit hardest older prisons and those with the toughest inmates.

At the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, which has beds for 288 men judged to be "the worst of the worst" in the system, prisoners are confined to their cells at least 23 hours a day.

Even when they get recreation, it often is indoors.

"I don't even want to think about that," Dr. Swetz said. "We'll be monitoring that situation closely."

The Division of Correction is in the process of arranging for volunteers -- staff members and inmates alike -- to be trained to lead programs that would help inmates quit smoking.

But Dr. Swetz said the system won't be able to provide nicotine gum or patches for prisoners.

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