Prison 'workplace' goes smoke-free

July 02, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Crystal Hanna wasn't a smoker until a charge of battery landed her in the crowded environs of the women's section of the Baltimore City Detention Center 10 months ago. Now, she's finding it nearly impossible to stop.

Ms. Hanna, 25, tried to quit June 26, after learning that starting yesterday, smoking would no longer be allowed at the jail. "I made it until about lunchtime," she said ruefully.

Boredom and the stress of living with 26 women to a small dormitory, watching your back and trying to work out what got you there, sent her back to smoking.

Inmates now are not permitted to light up anywhere inside Maryland's 24 prisons and the city detention center, which the state has run since 1991. The policy is the system's way of complying with the statewide workplace smoking ban that went into effect in March.

At most prisons, inmates still are allowed to light up outside. But at a few others, wardens are stopping the sale of all tobacco products at prison commissaries, and eventually will prohibit prisoners from having cigarettes at all.

The ban will be a tough sell to a population known to roll up toilet paper and smoke it if necessary, with a few strands of tobacco added for flavor from a butt that might have been found on the floor. Roughly 52 percent of the state's more than 20,000 inmates are thought to be smokers.

The cigarette has been a symbol and a tool of life behind bars practically as long as modern prisons have existed. Cigarettes are fatalism in a pack, toughness at the ready, and as good as cash in the world of black-market bartering.

For example, prisoners who work in the detention center kitchen have been known to pass along extra food to other prisoners in exchange for smokes.

"Cigarettes are the best thing that happened in the jail as far as eating," said Kevin Belton, a nonsmoking inmate. "It's going to be like a different market there now, I guess."

So far, wardens at the detention center, the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center and the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center -- known as "Supermax" because it is designed for the most difficult inmates in the system -- have decided to ban tobacco. Some prisoners in those buildings rarely get recreation outside, so their opportunities to smoke would be infrequent.

At "Supermax" in downtown Baltimore, a pack can cost a book of postage stamps on the black market -- the equivalent of $6.40. By contrast, the commissary at one jail charged $1.50 for a generic pack and $1.80 for a name brand.

Harold Benjamin Dean, the only prisoner ever to escape from Supermax and who is back there after being captured in 1992, recently wrote to a prison-aid volunteer that he quit smoking on his own in 1989.

"I know that there is going to be a lot of ill people behind these doors for awhile," the convicted killer wrote. "But I won't be one of them!"

Prisoners at the detention center already are on edge from crowding that has kept its population well above court-ordered limits.

To ease tension, acting warden William Jednorski has told prisoners that they will have a period to use the cigarettes they still have and to start weaning themselves from the habit, though "we would prefer you not smoke at all."

Eight prisoners from the inmate council who gathered in the warden's office Friday to discuss the policy said inmates would try their best to live with the restrictions.

Henry Gray said he and "some of the older guys" on his dormitory have been holding informal workshops to help younger prisoners kick nicotine.

Since the ban was announced several weeks ago, Gray, who is in jail on a charge of failing to pay child support, has pruned his smoking to three cigarettes a day.

Glen Murphy, 27, jailed on a narcotics charge, said he had not smoked in seven weeks with the help of exercise.

"Sometimes by force is easier than by choice," said prisoner Dwayne Harris, 28. "Most know they're going to have to [stop]. They won't like it at first, but once they kick the habit they'll adjust to it."

Prison officials are planning various ways to ease the tension, such as ordering new types of candy to divert cigarette cravings. They also will hold smoking cessation classes.

Mr. Jednorski said the jail might be able to distribute "incentive bags" of food and other items to inmates who kick the habit.

The ban applies to everyone who enters prisons -- volunteers, employees and visitors as well as inmates. Correctional officers have been prohibited from smoking inside the prisons since 1992.

Some inmates are sure to litigate the issue because to them prisons are homes, not workplaces.

Others simply will try to win the battle with themselves.

For Jolanda Jackson, awaiting trial on a charge of attempted murder, there is another incentive besides the no-smoking policy: A 9-year-old son who wants his mother to be smoke-free.

"I feel it's going to be a lot of chaos because of this," Ms. Jackson said. Still, she said: "I can handle it."

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