Smoking ban for Florida prisoners begins in six months

March 15th, 2011 by Staff – TAMPA – Florida prisoners who smoke are kicking the habit before Sept. 30. They have no choice.

Corrections officials are banning smoking at state prisons, giving inmates six months’ warning and offering prisoners help quitting.

Instead of selling cigarettes and lighters at their canteens, prisons might sell inmates the nicotine patch, said Gretl Plessinger, state Department of Corrections spokeswoman.

Prisoners hospitalized for tobacco-related illnesses like cancer and emphysema cost Florida’s taxpayers $8.7 million last year alone, state corrections officials said.

“Eliminating smoking is a win for taxpayers, but it’s also a win for employees and inmates, making our facilities healthier places to work and live in, and making them a little safer, too,” Edwin Buss, corrections secretary, said in a news release.

Prisoners now can smoke in designated areas during recreation time.

Beginning Sept. 30, cigarettes will be considered contraband, and prisoners caught smoking will face possible discipline – including visitation restrictions and loss of gain time.

“For inmates, we are working with the canteen vendor and may offer patches,” Plessinger said. “If patches are offered, inmates will have to pay for those patches.”

Eliminating lighters will make prisons safer and save taxpayers money, corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said.

It will reduce the risk of arson. And lighters can be used to melt plastic objects like toothbrushes into shanks, she said.

“When an inmate injures another inmate, that costs taxpayers money,” Plessinger said.

Inmates spent $19 million last year in tobacco-related products. That money went to the canteen vendor, which pays the state 96 cents a day per inmate regardless of what is purchased in the canteen.

“The state does earn tax off of inmate canteen purchases,” Plessinger said. “Other states that have eliminated tobacco have not seen significant losses. Inmates spend the money they have on other products like hard candy.”

Jeff Eiser, who ran the jail system in Cincinnati when smoking was banned there, said inmates transitioned well to products like coffee and candy. He said removing cigarettes saved the jails money cleaning everything from garments to sheets.

The only downside to the ban, Eiser said, was that cigarettes became serious contraband.

“Cigarettes were probably more popular inside the jail and more expensive than marijuana,” he said. “It cost quite a bit of food to get cigarettes.”

Eiser said some inmates stole cigarettes from jail staff and that some jail staffers violated protocol by making money providing inmates cigarettes.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton said prisons in her state didn’t have large-scale riots when smoking was banned in 2005. But the prisons did get contraband, with pouches of tobacco selling for $50 to $200 and cans of tobacco selling for $200 to $500.

“I’ve heard Bible paper actually makes good paper for rolling cigarettes,” she said.

Some states have dealt with angry prisoners once the smoking bans went into effect.

When Georgia prisons implemented smoking bans in 1995, about 150 Lee Correctional Institution inmates protested, refusing to work, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Most went back to their assignments after their warden called in a riot squad.

Plessinger said she realizes some Florida prisoners won’t be happy to have their cigarettes removed.

“Like anybody who tries to quit smoking, it’s not an easy process,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll see some inmates who are going to be more agitated than others and, obviously, we’re going to have to work with those inmates on quitting.”

Prisoners will still have other distractions to break up the monotony, including “goodies in the canteen” and visitation, Plessinger said.

She said that quitting smoking also will help prisoners when they’re released into society.

“They’re proud of themselves. They’ve succeeded at something,” she said. “It’ll teach them self-control.”

Florida’s public buildings and offices have smoking bans, as do federal prisons and more than half of the country’s state prisons.

Prison employees will have designated smoking areas outside prison fences.

Hillsborough County jail inmates already are banned from using tobacco products. In October 2009, that tobacco product ban was extended at all detention department locations in Hillsborough, affecting detention staff personnel and the public.

Hillsborough County sheriff’s Col. Jim Previtera said he’s excited about the smoking ban.

He said a couple of times a week, an inmate returns from prison to a Hillsborough County jail with cigarette contraband on him. Recently, one inmate tried smuggling several tobacco pouches and rolling paper within some legal materials.

Previtera said tobacco is probably the biggest substance contraband that Hillsborough deputies face. He said much of the tobacco comes in after trustees are out performing lawn work or picking up litter.

“It would be a good investment,” he said of tobacco in jail. “It’s worth dollars on the cent – as much as $5 or $10 worth of canteen for a cigarette.”

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