Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Brother, Can You Spare A Smoke? (part 2)

Back in June I wrote about Virginia's proposal to ban smoking and other tobacco products from its prison system. You can add Georgia to the growing list of prison systems who are instituting similar bans.

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.

I'm not sure what that means, but the ban is being painted as a "save the taxpayers money" on the health care costs issue.

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.

Except in cases where the bans are not a "great idea." As I noted in the June post, we have definitive studies showing tobacco bans in prison not only increase the prevalence of tobacco as a contraband item, but have led some prisons to become more violent and dangerous as a result (the emergence of "tobacco gangs"). The new black market created with these bans actually endangers staff safety and threatens the security of the institutions.

I'm sure the sentiment is in the right place here. Unlike Virginia's ban, which was politically motivated as a cudgel with which to beat up inmates, Commissioner Owens seems intent on making the inmates healthier and saving money in these hard economic times.

But as I wrote back in June, the idea that tobacco bans can produce healthy inmates assumes one can "emerge from years of imprisonment 'healthy' by any physical, mental or spiritual measurement. The very essence of confinement is unhealthy, and further deprivations only aggravate those conditions."

Fundamentally, banning tobacco is more about social control than it is health or savings.


Devan said...

Prisoners are gonna be mad angry. All they have is that quick cig fix while locked down. I can only imagine if this will be like what happened in that state where the prisoners protested to get smoking back.

Jay Livingston said...

If they are really interested in healthcare costs, is there a chance that they'll take a look at the age distribution of the prison population and reconsider their sentencing and parole policies? What's the point of keeping dudes of sexagenarians locked up, with or without their Marlboros?