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Two decades after Pinellas lawmaker proposed it, Florida's prisons ban smoking

TALLAHASSEE — Two decades after a Pinellas County legislator first proposed it, Florida is finally ready to outlaw smoking by prison inmates.

That prisoners are still casually lighting up in the rec yard, years after many other states stopped the practice, is testament to the legacy of tobacco industry influence in Tallahassee and the reluctance of a rigid prison bureaucracy to change with the times.

Gov. Rick Scott's new prison boss, Edwin Buss, arrived in Florida from Indiana a few weeks ago and was shocked to discover a smoky haze in prisons he visited. His former state banned smoking in prison in 1995, and many other states followed suit.

"We're kind of going toward a smoke-free world," Buss said.

Buss plans to offer nicotine patches and smoking cessation classes to inmates to wean them off cigarettes and chewing tobacco by September, in an effort to make prisons cleaner and reduce health care costs.

But no one is more gleeful about the upcoming ban than R.Z. "Sandy" Safley, a former Republican lawmaker from Clearwater who proposed a prison smoking ban in 1992, only to watch tobacco industry lobbyists crush the idea with the complicity of the Department of Corrections.

"The tobacco industry just didn't want anything that smacked of restrictions or that called into question tobacco use," Safley recalled Wednesday.

Prison officials estimate that about 60 percent of inmates are smokers and that many nonsmoking young inmates take up the habit, partly out of boredom. It has been illegal for inmates to smoke in their cells for the past decade.

Last year, inmates in Florida purchased $19 million worth of tobacco products, and taxpayers paid $9 million in health care costs for inmates hospitalized with tobacco-related illnesses.

Snuffing out smoking also will make prisons cleaner, Buss said, while reducing a source of contraband, not to mention eliminating a known cancer-causing drug.

As for prison employees, they still will be able to smoke, Buss said, but only outside the fencing that surrounds prison compounds.

The tobacco industry lost much of its clout in the Capitol a decade ago, and some question what took the state this long to make prisons smoke-free.

The state says 25 other states ban smoking in prison, and Georgia will impose a ban on Dec. 1. The federal government banned smoking in federal prisons in 2004.

Smoking has been off-limits in most county jails for years. By 1992, jails in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk, Broward, Marion, Duval, Charlotte and Leon counties had all banned smoking by inmates. Pasco and Hernando joined them.

Nine years ago, Florida voters approved a ban on smoking in all indoor workplaces by an overwhelming margin.

Allison DeFoor, a prison reform advocate and former Monroe County sheriff, said: "This isn't exactly cutting edge. This is just plain old common sense."

As recently as the 1970s, the state manufactured cigarettes that it distributed free of charge to inmates, but the prison system closed the factory after a University of Florida study found the state-made high-nicotine cigarettes were causing cancer in inmates.

After Safley's 1992 attempt to outlaw smoking, another try went up in smoke in the 1997 Legislature. The 1999 Legislature approved a ban on smoking inside prison buildings, and the prison system says only death row inmates are allowed to smoke in their cells because they are not allowed outdoor recreation.

Former Florida Corrections Secretary James McDonough, a former statewide drug czar who ran the prison system from 2006 to 2008 during a turbulent time following a major scandal, said he did not seek a smoking ban out of concerns it might be disruptive.

"I thought it would cause some unrest among the inmate population, and probably some unrest among the officers," McDonough said. "I thought that was one thing I didn't want to do at that time."

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, echoed that concern this week.

"I think that it poses potential risks, because you've got people that are locked up, and there are very few liberties that they have. I just think that's it's going to create a volatile situation," Joyner said.

Fears of a backlash by inmates proved unwarranted when the Broward County jail system went smoke-free in the 1990s.

"There was a concern when we first planned it that there would be problems with the inmates, but surprisingly there were none," spokesman Jim Leljedal said. "The inmates didn't riot, nothing like that. … When we banned smoking, the number of fires set by inmates dropped, too."

Col. Jim Previtera, commander of Hillsborough's jail, said it's long overdue for state prisons to ban tobacco because it causes a major contraband problem for his jail, as inmates move between the two systems.

"It's like a commodity that can be bought and sold and traded," Previtera said.

Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats has a policy of refusing to hire anyone who has not been tobacco-free for the past six months.

"Tobacco causes an unhealthy environment — not only for the employees, but for the inmates," Coats said.

Miami Herald staff writer James Burnett, Times staff writers Robbyn Mitchell, Erin Sullivan and John Cox and Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Two decades after Pinellas lawmaker proposed it, Florida's prisons ban smoking 03/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 11:05pm]
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