TALLAHASSEE — Inmates can't smoke in Florida prisons anymore, but employees still can.
Facing resistance from the union representing correctional officers, Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker has lifted the order from his predecessor that required all prisons in Florida to be smoke-free by Oct. 1.
Tucker's new policy allows officers, employees and visitors to smoke or chew tobacco on prison grounds "within a secure perimeter," and such areas "should not be in plain view of inmates."
"Wardens, as my designees, are authorized to designate outdoor areas where employees, contractors, volunteers and official visitors may use tobacco products," Tucker said in an Oct. 4 memo. Smokers "are limited to possession of no more than one pack, can, pouch or other single factory container of tobacco."
Former prisons chief Ed Buss, who was forced out by Gov. Rick Scott in August, decreed in April that prisons be smoke-free to reduce skyrocketing health care costs and the hazards caused by second-hand smoke. All other state buildings and offices are smoke-free.
Buss came to Florida from Indiana, which banned smoking in prisons two decades ago, and he quickly launched a six-month cessation program to help inmates kick the habit, including selling them $35 nicotine patches.
Under Buss' decree, corrections officers could smoke if they stepped outside the prison gates, a long walk at some of the state's biggest lockups. When Buss left town, the officers' union formally resisted the move.
Union attorney Hal Johnson of the Florida Police Benevolent Association said he told Tucker that a revised smoking policy changes workplace conditions and must be negotiated as part of a union contract.
"We sent an e-mail saying, 'You need to talk to us,' " Johnson said. "I think this is a fair solution for everybody."
Not according to the families of some inmates, who have sent letters of complaint to Tucker, citing what they call a double standard.
"It doesn't seem to be real fair," said Jill Doerr of St. Augustine, whose brother is at a prison at Lake Butler, near Gainesville.
Doerr said she doesn't think inmates should smoke, but she added: "If they're going to make it a law, then it all should be off the grounds."
Madelyn Chiarelli of Coral Springs also lodged protests with prison officials. She said a friend of hers who is serving time at a prison in Live Oak told her officers chew tobacco and smoke in front of inmates struggling to become nonsmokers.
"It's a problem," Chiarelli said. "I know the officers are supposed to smoke in designated places, but what I'm hearing is that they are chewing tobacco and smoking in front of the inmates. That taunts them."
Warden Chris Landrum at Suwannee Correctional in Live Oak said in an Oct. 10 memo to his staff: "I continue to receive calls and complaints … alleging that we have numerous staff continuing to smoke … in the presence of our inmate population."
Corrections officials say the reason for designating smoking areas at each prison is to prevent that from happening.
"None of the recent decisions that the department has made in reference to tobacco use have been made to frustrate or discourage the inmate population," wrote Alan McManus, chief of policy management in the Department of Corrections, in a letter to Chiarelli. "It is not an advantage to anyone to set policies that would disrupt effective and safe correctional practices."
Tucker's liberalized smoking policy comes as legislators are considering requiring state employees to join smoking cessation programs as part of obtaining state group health insurance.
Georgia last year became the 26th state to completely ban smoking on prison grounds. Most other states have partial smoking bans.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.