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Published: Monday, 3/28/2005

Sentenced to clean air

Some have argued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (successfully) that allowing indoor smoking in prisons is cruel and unusual punishment for inmates and prison employees exposed to second-hand smoke.

Conversely, others insist it is likewise cruel and unusual punishment to deny smoking to prison populations and employees where the habit is widespread.

The latter group has finally lost the coin toss in Ohio. Indoor smoking will be banned at all state-run prisons within six month, and the system will join the rest of the country, where the no-smoking trend is gaining momentum, and health concerns override old notions about smoking.

Most government buildings are already smoke-free, but prisons have been among the last to change. Until recently, foes of a ban included Corrections Director Reginald Wilkinson.

For years Mr. Wilkinson opposed a smoking ban in the prisons, fearing a systemwide ban would only invite unrest, corruption, and tobacco smuggling. Today he says his thinking has been "modified by data" that indicates, among other things, that smoking cessation policies in other state prison systems have not resulted in any great backlash from inmates or employees.

Mr.Wilkinson acknowledges the well documented evidence about the dangers of second-hand smoke and concedes it's no longer an issue just for inmates, it's a concern for staff. The state, adds the prison chief, has an obligation to provide a healthy environment.

It's been done on the federal level and in many states. According to a 2002 survey conducted by the American Correctional Association, at least 38 of 50 state correctional departments had either full or partial smoking bans in effect.

Ohio was slow to join the movement; it's time to catch up. The Department of Corrections will put its indoor smoking prohibition in place at all 32 state-run prisons, which house nearly 44,000 prisoners. The decision came on the recommendation of the Smoking Cessation Committee, a panel that studied the smoking habits of inmates and employees.

To ease the transition to tobacco-free facilities, the Federal Bureau of Prisons offered smoking-cessation programs to inmates along with a supply of nicotine patches. It's unclear what kind of help will be available to the estimated 70 percent of Ohio prisoners who smoke.

It is safe to say the move to implement a total ban on smoking inside Ohio's prisons won't be wildly embraced by all employees and inmates. A spokesman for Washington's corrections department says that during the first week of that state's smoking ban, "some of the inmates were a little bit testy," but there was nothing significant.

Managing the change in Ohio is worth the challenge to clear the air and lift a cruel and unusual sentence in the state's smoke-filled prisons.

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