Go to prison and kick the nicotine habit

April 19, 2001|By Michael Olesker

WHEN Daniel Brashear arose from sleep each morning and inhaled his first gentle cigarette puff of the day, he imagined himself a citizen. This was a mistake, as Judge Frederic N. Smalkin informed him the other day. Brashear is merely a prison inmate, and distinctions have to be made.

This is not always so easy. It is one thing for prisoners to have television sets in their cells so they can enjoy the civilizing effects of Jerry Springer. It is another thing to have radios in their cells to enjoy the gentle ambience of Howard Stern. It is one more thing to have barbells in the exercise yard so they can be built like municipal statues when they return to the general public and want to knock over old ladies for their pocketbooks.

But cigarettes are now another reason - as if one were needed - to avoid the Maryland Division of Correction. Unlike other inmate perks, they are now to be banished.

In the state's 25 prisons, there are about 23,000 inmates. About half of them smoke. Beginning June 30, however, they will have to get themselves paroled in order to do so. Under a ban announced last month, tobacco, lighters and matches will be banned at all state prisons, and not even a lawsuit filed by Brashear can change this.

This should be one swell summer inside the prisons: grumpy inmates not allowed to smoke, grumpy correctional officers not allowed to smoke, grumpy visitors who can't smoke until they leave the visitors area - all, despite the efforts of Brashear, 37, who won't be going anywhere for a while.

He is some interesting guy. He is doing 30 years on a homicide and has a previous arrest record for assault and battery, theft and forgery - but he thinks society is mistreating him because he will no longer be able to poison himself at will.

We walk a fine line when debating life in prisons. Those who argue for more civilized conditions are met with taunts. "Whaddya wanta do, put 'em up at the Hyatt Hotel?" the hard-liners sneer. But those who argue that bad crimes deserve hard time - Cool Hand Luke conditions, minus any civilizing effects - are asked a simple question: Do we want inmates emerging from prison more hardened, more embittered, and less capable of living by society's rules than when they were sent away?

The new rule on smoking is part of this question. On the outside, those working in an office who want to cop a smoke can stand in some doorway, with the wind howling and the mercury standing at 12 degrees, and enjoy the sublime privileges of being a citizen.

Those behind bars cannot. And Brashear, filing his suit in federal court, took the argument to a new level. Because nicotine is addictive, and Brashear believes himself one of its victims, he pointed to the Americans with Disabilities Act and labeled himself "disabled."

Judge Smalkin called Brashear and his suit "absurd. It should be perfectly obvious to any rational person that the state of Maryland ... has a legitimate interest in protecting the health of nonsmokers forced to be its guests in correctional facilities. In fact, the Supreme Court has held that state [officials] could face liability ... if they do not protect nonsmokers from smokers' secondhand smoke."

It is frustratingly difficult to break the cigarette habit. The tobacco companies have lied to us for years while hooking one generation of the unsuspecting after another. Its leaders should be put behind bars just like any other criminals who willfully harm other people. And, yes, we should be sympathetic to those smokers who would like to beat the habit but don't know how.

But maybe we have more sympathy for the victims of crimes than we do for the criminal victims of cigarettes.

Yesterday, Division of Correction spokesman John Locklear said, "The general thinking is that we'll have some grumpy people once the cigarette ban is imposed. But in the long run, it should help. There shouldn't be so many geriatric inmates with cancer, for example. A lot of the inmates are taking it positively. They're saying, look, it has to be done."

Among those are allergy sufferers and asthmatics, who argued that secondhand cigarette smoke made life unnecessarily difficult for them. It's the same argument offered by people on the outside.

Daniel Brashear imagined himself pretty clever by calling himself "disabled" by cigarettes. Judge Smalkin, calling this "absurd," understood the distinction. Many disabilities cannot be cured. Smoking can be cured. It can be cured by a process known as "not smoking."

On the outside, this is difficult because cigarettes are so available. In the prisons, they will not be available.

As Daniel Brashear braces for the end of his smoking days, he can think of this as one of the small, unanticipated benefits of life behind bars.

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