Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Brother, Can You Spare A Smoke?

Cigarette Ban Being Implemented in Virginia Prisons:

Virginia corrections officials have quietly begun banning cigarettes in some state prisons and plan to make the entire system tobacco-free by February 2010. The health measure follows a national trend but has left public-safety advocates worried that inmate control could become more difficult.

Virginia follows the federal prison system, as well as states including California, Texas, Michigan and Colorado, in instituting smoking bans in prisons over the past few years. Maryland has banned tobacco products at all 24 state prisons, inside and out, since 2001.

As in other states, the effort in Virginia has raised concerns about maintaining safety in state prisons.

Ironically, those advocating these bans assume the problem of inmate control revolves around behavioral problems associated with withdrawal from nicotine

Marilyn P. Harris, Virginia's deputy secretary of public safety, said she has heard no complaints from corrections officers about the new policy. She says she thinks most have become accustomed to smoking bans at restaurants and other public facilities.

Similarly, she said there is no cause for concern regarding inmate control, based on her experience at the eight state prisons where the ban is underway. She attributes that to the fact that most local jails in Virginia are already smoke-free, so inmates are used to doing without cigarettes once they arrive in the state system.

"There have been no problems whatsoever," she said.

Except this has nothing to do with behavior related to nicotine withdrawal and everything to do with cigarettes as contraband.

At least one national study, conducted by the Ohio State University College of Public Health, found that tobacco bans increased the prevalence of tobacco as a contraband item. Enforcement of the ban will not be as strict as the system's policing of cellphone and drug use.
The study referenced above is "Tobacco Bans: A Crisis in Social Control" and is much more alarming in its conclusions than this article suggests. The authors write that banning tobacco in prisons:
...has produced a new black market commodity with control of the black market shifting from the inmate population to prison staff. In some prison communities, staff members have formed “tobacco gangs,” and work as a unit smuggling and distributing contraband items to the inmate population. The shift in control of the prison black market associated with the tobacco ban has resulted in an increase in levels of deprivation experienced by the inmate social organization and a reduction in levels of institutional security associated with the deviant behavior of prison staff.
Nice. While politicians use smoking bans as yet another cudgel with which to beat up prisoners for political capital, and middle class health nags worry about smoking and "healthier inmates," once again we're actually endangering the lives of correctional staff who have to deal with these boneheaded deprivations. This warped thinking seems to be, if it's viewed as a "perk" to inmates, then it should be done away with (see also: bans on furloughs, conjugal visits, television, workout equipment, education, higher education, training, job skills, psychological counseling, coffee, ad nauseam).

What's even more galling about these bans is that proponents argue it's being done for the "health of the inmate population," as if one can emerge from years of imprisonment "healthy" from a physical, mental or spiritual measurement. The very essence of confinement is unhealthy, and further deprivations only aggravate those conditions.

These types of punitive punitive actions have nothing to do with health and everything to do with social control. Meanwhile, life in prison gets more violent, staff and inmates are assaulted and killed, and we scratch our heads wondering why.

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