Suit to snuff smoking in prisons gets boost

Attorney says convicts deserve protection from tobacco hazards

April 18, 2000|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

If a lawsuit filed by inmates against the Maryland prison system continues its so-far successful route through federal court, convicts might soon be given a choice at sentencing: smoking or nonsmoking?

"Once or twice a year, inmates are permitted to say what sort of diet they want, if it should be pork-free or vegetarian or kosher," said Andy Freeman, a Baltimore attorney representing five inmates with health problems aggravated by smoke. "They should be able to choose whether or not they want smoke-free housing."

Another option, Freeman said, would be to make all tobacco contraband in Maryland prisons. A dozen other states, he said, have similar policies.

Filed in 1994, the litigation received a boost Friday from federal Magistrate Jillyn K. Schulze in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. Schulze recommended that the inmates' request for relief be granted. Schulze ruled that no monetary damages be granted.

In her ruling, Schulze said: "Plaintiffs have shown that environmental tobacco smoke at their exposure levels poses an unacceptable risk to them and also because of their medical conditions, they themselves are particularly vulnerable to future health damage."

The case is pending with Judge Peter Messitte, also of the federal court in Greenbelt. Each side has 10 days to file objections to Schulze's ruling before Messitte makes a decision.

According to a spokesman for the Maryland prison system, the state bans smoking in all housing areas with inmates allowed to smoke only in designated areas outside penitentiary housing.

In practice, however, affidavits from correctional officers filed with the suit contend that smoking -- surreptitious and blatant -- goes on all the time inside state prisons, with guards choosing not to spark conflicts by enforcing the rule.

The Maryland attorney general's office could not be reached last night for comment.

A state Division of Correction survey a few years ago showed that about half of Maryland's inmate population smokes. A lead plaintiff in the suit has had his life threatened for trying to protect his right to be free from secondhand smoke.

"The [current] rule is unenforced and unenforceable," said Freeman. "The way these prisons are designed and staffed, it is essentially impossible for correctional officers to stop prisoners from smoking in their cells. We found smoke levels in cells and day rooms to be very high."

Pointing to data from other states that have adopted strict no-tobacco policies in their prisons, Freeman said that positive side-effects have resulted: a decrease in the use of harder drugs [given a choice to receive smuggled heroin or smuggled cigarettes, inmates generally prefer tobacco]; outbreaks of fire decrease; the cost of treating inmates for smoking-related illnesses goes down.

"The state of Maryland can be proud of all it's done to protect Marylanders from the dangers of second-hand smoke, but a society ought to be judged on how it cares for its most vulnerable citizens," Freeman said. "On that count, Gov. [Parris N.] Glendening and state prison officials ought to be ashamed."

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