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An inmate at Monroe Corrections Complex in Washington rolls a cigarette in May 2004.

The Case for Smoking in Prison

When cigarettes are outlawed, only outlaws have cigarettes.

Hundreds of inmates rioted in an Australian prison on June 30 in response to a cigarette smoking ban that was set to take hold at all 13 prisons in the state of Victoria. Tensions at the prison had reportedly been running high since earlier this month, when the facility stopped selling tobacco.

Such bans are already the norm in the United States. The Federal Bureau of Prisons removed tobacco from prison commissaries in 2006, and in January officially instituted rules prohibiting smoking and possession of tobacco, except as part of authorized religious activity. The case for outlawing smokes in prison is pretty much the same as the case for banning them anywhere else: cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other diseases for the smoker and those in proximity. But there is an argument for cigarettes in prison, asserts Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that advocates liberalizing America’s drug laws. The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo recently spoke with Nadelmann about the unintended consequences of tobacco bans in prison. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Australia is one of many countries that are banning tobacco in detention facilities. In the U.S., most states already have restrictions, and 20 states are completely smoke and tobacco free, both indoors and out. Based on what we’ve seen here in the states, what should Australian prison officials expect?

It’s a lesson in economics 101. In prisons where cigarettes are banned, they sell for up to $20 each, and whole packs of cigarettes can sell for up to $200. This creates a major profit opportunity for gangs, who already have networks for smuggling other things, but cigarettes take it to another level in terms of the profit potential.

And this is also a source of corruption amongst prison employees. If you think from the perspective of a prison guard, they may never be willing to smuggle heroin or cocaine, because of the moral opprobrium associated with those. But when it comes to smuggling cigarettes, you’re violating the same laws of contraband, yet you can see how a lot of guards could say, “Well, what’s so terrible about selling a cigarette? I know I’m breaking the rules, but here I can make a little money. I smoke, he smokes, what’s the big deal?”

What about the needs of the nonsmoking inmates and correction officers who pushed for these bans in some places, citing their right to work and live free of second-hand smoke?

It seems to me there’s a fair element of hypocrisy in all of this. On the one hand, you have California, one of the first states to ban cigarettes in prison. Meanwhile, the entire California prison system is under the thumb of the federal courts because they have been violating the U.S. Constitution by not providing adequate health care to inmates. So to ban cigarettes and then become notorious because inmates are dying from a lack of health care, it makes you wonder, what do authorities really care about?

We can think about this even more broadly. All scientific evidence shows if you have people addicted to heroin, putting them on a methadone program increases the likelihood they will be healthy behind bars and decreases the likelihood they’ll go back to street drugs when they get out of prison. In Australia and Europe, methadone programs are standard operating procedure. But we don’t do that here.

It also makes me think about other health interventions that prisoners are denied access to. We know there’s a fair amount of sex behind bars, and in many prisons outside the U.S., condoms are provided. Even sterile syringes are available in recognition of the fact that inmates are accessing illegally obtained drugs, and one wants to avoid the spread of HIV or Hepatitis C. Those basic harm-reduction approaches are well grounded in public health and scientific evidence. But it’s something that we in the U.S., with our much more punitive approach to incarceration, haven’t allowed. And so I tend to see much of this smoking ban as being on its face about improving the health of inmates, but given the broader punitive thrust of incarceration in America, most of what’s going on with the tobacco ban is really about saying, let’s punish them. Let’s deny them things.

There’s very little research into the impact of these bans. Ohio prisons banned tobacco in 2009, and soon after, prisons director Gary Mohr reportedly asked his department to investigate whether an increase in violence was linked to the ban. When I requested the results of that inquiry, a corrections spokesperson told me they were unable to locate any actual studies into a possible link. Why do you think we know so little about the fallout of these bans?

There’s a real paucity of any serious research examining these prohibitions. Does it increase corruption and black markets? Do tobacco bans enrich prison gangs? Are there growing levels of violence associated with this? We don’t have solid answers on any of this stuff, and I think it’s a tragedy that there isn’t any good information.

There has to be an incentive for people to want to know. Since one of the likely outcomes of such a study would be to reveal higher levels of contraband and corruption than generally acknowledged, I can see all sorts of reasons why they would not want to come out with a report showing how that’s been impacted by bans on tobacco. If you’re in charge of a prison, do you want to issue a report that produces that kind of information?

Is there a smoking policy for prisons that would make sense to you?

Why not allow a smoking area where people could consume during certain hours? And to the extent that electronic cigarettes don’t pose a broader threat, why not allow those? There’s no second-hand consequence to those, and the harms to health are fairly minimal. People smoke cigarettes not only because they are addicted, but for the pleasure, the relaxation. And now that we see that many of the pleasures of tobacco can be taken in a vaporized form, why are we depriving people who are incarcerated of that pleasure? That opportunity to relax? That just seems about being punitive and cruel.