Smoking in federal prisons will soon be a thing of the past, thanks to new regulations from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The moratorium applies to any tobacco products not authorized for religious purposes and extends to prison staff and visitors. Any inmates caught with unauthorized cigarettes, pipes, cigars or other tobacco products will face confiscation of the contraband and disciplinary action, including restricted visitation rights and phone calls, and even solitary confinement in more extreme cases.
The regulation will take effect 30 days after its publication in the Federal Register—set for Monday—and will extend to all prison staff, visitors and inmates on the premises. Designated smoking areas will be determined by the warden, but will not be accessible to inmates, according to the BOP. About 70 to 80 percent of the 212,400 inmates currently incarcerated in federal prisons are smokers, according to the Public Health Law Center (PHLC). The PHLC also reports that inmates suffer disproportionately from mental illnesses, which makes them twice as likely to smoke as those without a mental illness, and they are at a higher risk of tobacco-related illnesses than individuals of the same age who are not incarcerated.
The BOP has been working to limit smoking in prisons since 2004, citing studies on the negative effects of secondhand smoke from the Environmental Protection Agency. A prison tobacco ban was proposed as early as 2006 as a means of protecting nonsmokers from the effects of secondhand smoke, much like similar bans in public places, but there were some arguments over the legality of a ban on individuals who have not chosen to quit. While prison staff is also banned from smoking within the facility, they are not barred from smoking once they leave and some prisons may institute smoking areas for limited staff smoke breaks, according to the BOP.
A 1993 Supreme Court ruling found that exposing prisoners to secondhand smoke was in violation of their Eight Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment and was used to argue the merits of a prison smoking ban. In 1998, a counter claim argued that smoking bans violate constitutional amendment rights of the individual to smoke, but was ruled invalid by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Despite the health benefits of quitting, troubles can and do arise from instituting smoking bans in correctional facilities, according to a report in the National Centers for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). The prohibition often boosts black market trade in the contraband, and bolstering with it the myriad crimes involved in its acquisition, as well as its price. According to the report, a pack of cigarettes in a California prison can cost up to $125.
There are also questions regarding the effectiveness of the ban on improving inmate health. Being banned from smoking and quitting smoking are not necessarily the same thing and there is no substantial evidence to support the claim that forcing smokers to quit will keep them smoke-free after their release. BOP spokesman Ed Ross said that cessation programs will be made available to inmates following the ban.
By Sree Aatmaa Khalsa