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Free in jail _ from smoking

Paul Kershner figures his time in jail will be good for something _ a realistic chance at kicking a 20-year smoking habit.

"I figured this is the best thing that's going to come out of it," said Kershner, 34. "This is something I've been trying to do for years."

Kershner will get his chance beginning March 1 when a smoking ban at the Pinellas County Jail takes effect.

No cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, snuff, matches, lighters or any other product associated with smoking will be allowed.

Friday was just a reminder of the cold turkey that is soon to come, said Kershner, who got his last pack of Doral Kings.

It was the last day inmates were allowed to buy cigarettes at the jail's commissary.

The ban, however, wasn't intended to help folks kick the habit.

"We went to non-smoking to make the jail safer and cleaner," said Lt. Richard Penn. "We're not here to pass judgment on people who smoke."

The walls, for example, probably would be painted less often, Penn said. Last year, 2,500 gallons of paint were used at the jail at a cost of $32,600, he said.

More important, inmates won't have the ability to start a fire, accidentally or otherwise, said Maj. John Wolf.

It's not uncommon for an inmate to make a tight roll of toilet paper, light it and use it to heat food at night in a cell, Wolf said. Vandals have burned their initials in the paint.

But that should end when the ban takes effect, Wolf said. Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice followed the lead of other jails in the state where smoking is banned.

Jail officials estimate that 30 percent of the 1,700 inmates at the jail smoke. To help ease in the new policy, officials three months ago began reducing the number of cigarettes that could be purchased _ from three packs to one pack three times a week, said Ann M. Colpitts, an accounting supervisor at the commissary.

Kershner said he has stocked up on enough cigarettes to last nine days, until the ban takes effect. Colpitts said Kershner probably isn't the only one who has.

Inmates who don't smoke apparently have been buying cigarettes for inmates who do, she said.

"We have no way of proving it, but I'm relatively sure that's happening," Colpitts said.

Jail officials have added more candy, pretzels, cookies, dried fruit and other items to their shelves for inmates who probably will need to replace cigarettes with snacks.

Kershner said snacks might help. He has even stocked up on chips. But he said the ban will cause some anxiety.

"As far as the first couple of weeks go, I think there's going to be a lot of problems," said Kershner, who has served several months for a battery conviction. He has another hearing coming up in April.

The average stay for an inmate is 11 days, Penn said, so the non-smoking policy might not be so bad for some.

But others spend months there and can serve up to a one-year sentence. To help them, the jail will offer counseling and smoking cessation products, Penn said.

Barbara Newman, 42, is a corrections officer and a smoker. She said she doesn't expect many inmates to have an easy time quitting smoking.

"I can only smoke at lunch," Newman said. "I know how jittery I get."