State to ban smoking at all prisons

AJC Exclusive: Phase-out of tobacco use beginning Jan. 1

The state Department of Corrections will ban all tobacco use at its 37 facilities by the end of next year, becoming the 11th state to implement a total withdrawal of smoking at its prisons.

Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday that the agency will begin a phase-out of tobacco use beginning Jan. 1.

"It's 2010 in a few days and it's time to do the right thing," Owens said.

Corrections' decision follows a similar one announced this week by the Department of Mental Health. But Mental Health has said it will implement a total smoking ban in all seven state mental hospitals on Jan. 5. The Department of Corrections is taking a staggered approach, Owens said.

Beginning Jan. 1, smoking and tobacco use will be banned at two diagnostic facilities where inmates are evaluated after being transferred from county jails. Then, on July 1, 2010, the Augusta State Medical Prison — where the system's sickest inmates are housed — will go tobacco free, followed by a total tobacco ban in all state prisons beginning Dec. 1.

Owens said he recently surveyed county sheriffs and jailers and found that almost all are already tobacco free. Inmates, Owens said, "were getting off tobacco in the county jails and then getting back on it when they came into the state system."

Owens believes the phase-out of tobacco use at prisons, which will also apply to prison staff, will allow inmates to prepare and the department will offer cessation programs for those who want to participate.

It will, Owens said, allow Corrections officials to "implement this policy without many ripples."

Smoking inside prisons has been banned in Georgia since the 1990s, but as in dozens of other states it is allowed in outdoor areas. When the state first implemented the smoking ban in prisons in 1995, about 150 inmates at the Lee Correctional Institution in Leesburg refused to work during a 90-minute protest against the policy. All but seven of the protesting inmates went to their job assignments at the prison after the warden called in the prison's riot squad.

But if the experience in other states is any indication, the transition could go smoothly.

Jeff Eiser, a national expert on prison operations, ran a prison in Cincinnati when tobacco was banned there.

"Honestly? It was more difficult for the staff than for the inmates," Eiser said. "Generally, the inmates adopted so much better than we thought."

But the ban did bring another problem: Cigarettes, which once were treated as currency in prisons, suddenly became contraband.

"Cigarettes were going initally for more money than marijuana was" inside the prisons, Eiser said. "There was more of a demand for it. It was an interesting dynamic."

And instead of cigarettes being used as currency to pay debts or level bribes among prisoners, Eiser said the inmates turned to whatever they could. As in Georgia, cigarettes at Eiser's prison were sold at the prison commissary. With those gone, whatever was on the commissary shelves became used as currency.

"It was a transition to cookies, candies, anything they can buy," he said. "We had a thing where you could get somebody ‘hit' for a couple of big cookies. Chips, potato chips, candy, whatever it is becomes the currency. You could get beat up or badly hurt for not paying up in chips."

Owens said he's making the move for two reasons: It will save taxpayers money in health care costs for inmates and it will protect non-smoking prisoners from second-hand smoke.

The state spends more than $226 million a year on inmate health care — or about 17 percent of its total budget. While Owens said he cannot estimate how much money the state will save in decreased health care costs from the smoking ban, state officials have said tobacco-related disorders among inmates costs the state millions year.

The ban will "definitely have a positive impact on the prison population," said Kymberle Sterling, an assistant professor at the Institute for Public Health at Georgia State University. "A smoking ban is a great idea."

Bill Todd, president of the Georgia Cancer Coalition, said smoking bans, along with higher tobacco taxes and tougher laws enforcing minimum age requirements to purchase tobacco are effective methods of lowering smoking rates.

"They save lives," Todd said. "We're enthusiastic and excited about it."