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County may ban smoking in jail

For years, one of the few things that made life bearable behind bars was lighting up a cigarette. Those days may be gone.

Pinellas County authorities are considering forcing inmates to snuff out their habits to save money on maintenance and prevent fires.

Some say the ban could inflame tempers and leave inmates grumbling.

"You have people who are confined there 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Pinellas County Jail Director Charles Felton. "I think there's going to be some agitation and aggravation."

If Pinellas County sheriff's officials go through with a no-smoking policy, they will follow a nationwide trend to ban cigarettes behind bars. In Tampa Bay, Hillsborough and Manatee counties already have banned cigarettes in their jails.

The county's 1,581 jail inmates may not be the only ones affected by the ban. This week, Pinellas' 700 correctional officers and other jail staff were given questionnaires asking them about the possibility of a smoking ban. Answers to the survey are expected to be completed later this month. Sheriff Everett Rice may get a formal recommendation from his staff on a new no-smoking policy by August.

Authorities say banning cigarettes could save money and help prevent fires. Pinellas jail officials say they wouldn't have to paint walls as frequently or clean up as much if smoking were prohibited. Currently, inmates are allowed to smoke in their living quarters.

The number of fires also could decrease with a smoking ban, said Lt. Richard Penn, who is studying the measure for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department.

With a smoking ban, "We don't care if a guy has 500 books in his cell because he's not going to start a fire," Penn said.

He said Pinellas authorities have contacted the Gulf Coast Lung Association for advice on the best way to proceed with a ban. Jail officials might give inmates self-help manuals to cope with the effects of nicotine withdrawal. Smoking cessation classes also may be taught. It is not known how many of the inmates smoke.

Penn said the jail commissary may have to consider stocking up on hard candy to help inmates cope. Inmates also may be allowed to purchase small radios with headphones to help them relax.

So far, the law seems to be on the side of the jails that ban cigarettes.

In a 1989 decision, a federal court in Colorado ruled that banning smoking "did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment."

Inmates may disagree. And that has some officials worried.

"There have been outbreaks of violence . . . because of not being able to smoke," Felton said. "But they'll get over it."

Penn, however, said jail officials in other parts of the country reported only minimal increase in violence after smoking bans. He said many inmates aren't heavy smokers, and only smoke while they're in jail. Once they're free, they quit.

"It's out of boredom," Penn said. "Something to do to pass the time. . . . Most of the institutions reported a little grumpiness initially."