In the Spotlight

News & Features
Smoking Ban in Minnesota Prisons
By Rachel Reabe
July 31, 1997

Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4, RealAudio 3.0 28.8

Minnesota inmates were smoking up a storm the last week of July, trying to inhale the last puff of pleasure from the last pack of cigarettes. Starting August 1, 1997, state prisons were smoke free. State officials say the new law should curb spiraling health care costs. Prisoners, some of whom have smoked their whole lives, say eliminating their last source of pleasure is just another way to punish them. Rachel Reabe of our Mainstreet Radio team has the story.

. Greg Fallin, a 45-year-old inmate at Stillwater prison, has been smoking cigarettes since he was a kid. He quit once and remembers the awful first few weeks. Fallin's back to smoking three packs a day and not looking forward to August l when Minnesota prisons go smoke-free.

Fallin: First your nerves start going, you get stretched wire thin, hands start shaking, headaches, you want to stay as far away from anybody - any little thing will set you off.
When he quit before, Fallin was a free man. Long drives in the car and lots of distractions helped him get through. This time, he's in a seven by nine foot cell surrounded by thirteen hundred inmates.
Fallin: You got people here who are sitting here day after day - some will never get out. The state of Minnesota has no conception. They sugar coat it but they have no conception whatsoever the level of frustration that is building and will continue to build. You magnify that by taking away anything that would help pacify and you're sitting on a powder keg. You got a big problem.
Almost three-quarters of Minnesota's 5000 inmates smoke. The ban is also going to affect prison employees who will not be able to smoke or have tobacco in their possession on prison grounds. Stillwater Warden David Crist acknowledges the next few weeks are going to be challenging.
Crist: It's going to be neccessary for staff and inmates to count to l0 a little more often, be a little more thoughtful in response to provocation. It's going to be hot, it's going to be humid, which are things that tend to make people crabby anyway, and then there'll be the added irritability that goes along with withdrawing from tobacco. There may be some difficult times.
Seventeen million dollars was spent on inmate health care in Minnesota last year. That's 10% of the total budget for corrections, according to the department's health care administrator Dana Baumgartner.
Baumgartner: As a health care professional, certainly I am aware of the costs associated with cigarette smoking. I think the policy is appropriate and could result in significant savings of tax-payer dollars.
Baumgartner points the most common smoking-related ailments are emphysema and heart disease, but adds that smoking excacerbates almost any medical condition. Senator Dave Kleiss of St. Cloud who authored the legislation banning tobacco, says it's a reasonable restriction.
Kleiss: Most people don't know smoking is even allowed, and are quite outraged we pay 100% of health care costs, with health care costs over $l00/day per inmate.
Prisoners in Minnesota have had plenty of time to get used to the no smoking idea. The new law passed a year and a half ago. Proponents hoped the long lead time would encourage inmates to gradually kick the habit. It hasn't happened. Just 20 of Stillwater's 1300 inmates have opted for nicotine patches to help them quit smoking.

Inmate John Chambers says he can't afford it.

Chambers: They're selling these nicotine patches to us at our expense. That's roughly $80 for one month's supply, and if you're making 40 cents an hour at your job, how are you going to pay? July 3l, I'll still be smoking - right up to the bitter end. I don't want to quit. I don't have that desire.
Stillwater health officials say they're disappointed more inmates haven't taken advantage of the patches or the free stop-smoking workbooks and videos. They expect business to pick up after August l.

In mid-July, cigarettes remain by far the most popular purchase in the prison canteen. Down in the basement of the Stillwater prison, inmates wait impatiently for their orders to be filled during their weekly canteen shopping trip. The store offers some 400 products including a variety of groceries, toiletries, magazines, and cards. But tobacco products dominate the sales, accounting for one-fourth of the canteen business. At Stillwater, Minnesota's largest prison, 25,000 cartons of cigarettes were sold to inmates last year. System-wide, Minnesota prisoners spend almost $1.3 million annually on cigarettes.

Some of those cigarettes are purchased by inmates who don't smoke but use them for bartering purposes. When tobacco becomes contraband on August 1, Assistant Corrections commissioner Erik Skon says something else will be used.

Skon: Human beings are very resourceful people and if you eliminate one form of cash so to speak, they will develop another form. They'll resort to other things. More candybars or pop.
Stillwater inmates have filed a lawsuit in federal district court calling the tobacco ban unconstitutional. They claim it's additional punishment and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. One of the authors, inmate Gale Rachuy, says the smoking ban is not fair.
Rachuy: They didn't say everybody in Minnesota was going to quit smoking, just the prisoners. I don't why. Why don't they just leave us alone. Isn't it bad enough just being here?
The state attorney general's office has filed a motion to dismiss the inmates' lawsuit, but, pending court action, the tobacco ban will take place as scheduled. Five other states already have smoke-free prisons. Georgia tried going smoke free in 1995, but corrections officials there say it became a major management problem, with frequent fights and a thriving black market where cigarettes were going for $20 a pack. After five months, the tobacco ban was lifted.

In Minnesota, corrections officials point out all but a handful of county jails are already smoke free. State Senator Dave Kleis says banning tobacco in the state's prisons is a reasonable restriction.

Kleis: I don't think prison is a place where there should be a lot of pleasures and comforts. You pay your debt to society. You certainly have a choice whether to commit a crime in the first place. It shouldn't be a place you want to go and certainly shouldn't be a place you ever want to return to after you're released.
Minnesota and Indiana will be the sixth and seventh states to ban tobacco in their prisons August l. Michigan is scheduled to go smoke free in 1998 and a handful of other states are considering banning tobacco.