Smoke-free, at a price

Prisons: Three months into a ban on smoking, many inmates and correctional officers in Maryland still find it tough to do without tobacco.

October 03, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Three months after state corrections officials banned cigarettes in state prisons, many jittery inmates are desperate for a smoke.

Prisoners on crews that pick up trash along highways gather cigarette butts and roll the leftover tobacco into cigarettes they call "road kill." Inmates pay $20 or more for a pack of contraband brand-name cigarettes. Because it is feared that inmates might smoke nicotine patches, they also are prohibited.

"They'll do anything for a smoke," Charles Lockamy, an inmate at the Baltimore Pre-Release Unit, says of his fellow prisoners. "It's sad."

Fears that the smoking ban would lead to daily stabbings and riots have proved unfounded, and Commissioner William W. Sondervan of the state Division of Correction says that "for the most part, inmates have accepted the ban."

Still, life has changed behind the walls of Maryland's prisons. It has changed for the correctional officers struggling through shifts without a smoke break, and it has changed for the inmates forced to go cold turkey as correctional officials step up enforcement of the ban

Greg Holt sees the effects of the smoke-free prisons at his smoking-cessation class at the Pre-Release Unit. On a recent day, the small classroom, upstairs and around the corner from the weight room, was nearly full.

Holt, a case manager, runs the class like a talk-show host, encouraging inmates to express themselves and focus on beating their addictions rather than complaining that they're being forced to.

William Richardson, a 41-year-old inmate, has been smoking since he was 15. Three months after the ban went into effect, he is still in Holt's class. Holt's class wrapped up one session in the summer, and he started another this month because so many prisoners still needed it.

"I want to stop," Richardson says. "But I need help. It's an addiction, a medical problem."

Sondervan says officials considered making nicotine substitutes available but found that inmates elsewhere rolled up nicotine patches and smoked them. Nicotine gum wasn't an option because any gum is contraband in prisons. Inmates have used gum to plug locks and cause havoc.

"For the most part, inmates have accepted the ban," Sondervan says. "And a lot of them seem to understand that we had to do it."

The tobacco ban was a response, in part, to lawsuits filed by nonsmoking inmates, including Lockamy.

Several of the cases are pending, but a consolidated lawsuit was settled in July. Along with payments of $2,500 to each of 11 inmates, the statewide ban was part of the settlement.

When he filed his suit, Lockamy, who once worked in tobacco fields in North Carolina, thought inmates would eventually see that the ban was for their own good once they quit.

Now, the 24-year-old inmate says he regrets filing the suit. He has seen the desperation of inmates and officers unable to quit.

"It's bad," says Lockamy, who is due to be released in May.

A sit-in protest was held at the House of Correction in Jessup after the ban took effect in July. Smoking was only one complaint inmates made in explaining why they refused to report to their jobs in prison factories.

Others remain worried about the frayed nerves of inmates.

"Brothers are going to be losing their lives over some tobacco," says Dwayne Keys-Bey, 37, who is due to be released in April. "It might seem petty, but it's going to happen."

The smoking ban hasn't affected only inmates.

William Knight, a 50-year-old inmate who has been in prison since 1975, says he can see the toll the ban has taken on officers. "There's an increased level of irritation," he says. "The officers used to be able to chill for a minute, go out and have a cigarette. Now, the least little thing can set them off."

One well-liked prison supervisor with 20 years of experience told his colleagues that he couldn't handle the stress of the job after inmates and officers were barred from smoking on prison grounds starting July 1, prison staff members say. Many were sad to see him retire over the smoking issue.

Hundreds of inmates who can't or won't quit have been cited for violating the smoking ban. Initially, officers warned inmates when they were caught smoking, but they now keep track of who is breaking the smoking rules.

Inmates who accumulate a large number of demerits begin losing such privileges as recreation time. Enough violations could delay their release from prison. About half of the state's 23,000 inmates were smokers when the ban was imposed, so disciplining violators has been challenging.

"You can't send everyone to Supermax," Sondervan says.

At the Baltimore Pre-Release Unit on Greenmount Avenue, where inmates are permitted to smoke while at jobs off the prison premises, enforcing the ban is even more difficult.

Inmates who clean roads return to the lockup with their "road kill" to curb late-night cravings. They sell the secondhand cigarettes for 50 cents to $1 each. Others buy packs or single cigarettes and then try to blow the smoke out their cell windows.

The result is a sort of cat-and-mouse game, inmates say. As soon as an officer approaches, prisoners throw their lighted cigarettes into neighboring cells.

With the smoking ban entering its fourth month this week, officials say they're increasing penalties to prevent such tactics. The grace period, they say, is just about over.

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