By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
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.
The policy represents the latest in a series of anti-smoking steps taken in a state where tobacco has dominated the economy and politics for generations. A ban on smoking in restaurants goes into effect Dec. 1, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) began the process in late 2006 of banning smoking in most state office buildings.
"We've all seen the writing on the wall, all around the country and over the past several years," said Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections. He said prisoners and employees of Virginia's 32,600-inmate system were notified this year that tobacco would be banned completely after a one-year implementation period.
Already, eight of 40 prisons are either smoke-free or allow employees to smoke only in designated areas away from inmates, Traylor said. Smoking cessation and nicotine replacement therapy programs are underway for inmates and employees. The ultimate goal is to prohibit tobacco products on state prison property, inside and out, he said.
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.
"I don't have any problem with prisoners being denied the right to smoke," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). "The only question I have is what effect it would have on control."
The decision comes after an executive order issued in late 2006 by Kaine banning smoking in most state buildings. The order left the door open for the state prison system to follow suit, both to improve the working environment for corrections officers and to reduce the long-term costs of treating smoking-related disease.
"Curbing smoking in general is a good move for public health," said Kaine spokeswoman Lynda Tran. "Banning smoking in state correctional facilities ensures that individuals who are paying their debt to society now don't reenter society with poor health or other medical conditions that are related to secondhand smoke and that could ultimately become a burden to taxpayers, businesses and communities."
State corrections employees, who number just under 13,000, would also be barred from smoking at Virginia's 40 state prisons, according to a memo distributed to employees and inmates from Gene M. Johnson, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections.
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.
An added benefit of the ban will be the elimination of cigarettes as a common form of currency within the prison population, Traylor said -- although 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. It is illegal under Virginia's criminal code for inmates to use cellphones, and inmates can be charged and prosecuted if found with one. The cigarette ban, by contrast, involves only an administrative offense, meaning that violations will lead to loss of privileges but not criminal prosecution. To make cigarette use illegal among inmates would require General Assembly action.
Prison officials had contemplated training dogs who sniff out cellphones and illegal drugs to be able to detect tobacco products as well. But the cost was deemed prohibitive, particularly in the current economic climate, Traylor said.
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford and staff writer Henri E. Cauvin contributed to this report.