GUARDS and inmates at Michigan prisons are getting jumpier as February approaches, and the same is likely to be the case in Ohio penal facilities in a few weeks as well.
That's because Michigan will ban tobacco use inside all state prisons beginning Sunday. Ohio is planning on following suit on March 1.
In Michigan, preparations have been under way for a year. Smoking cessation classes have been available to help inmates quit and, while cigarette sales were halted in prisons on Jan. 1, nicotine patches and gum are available. Starting tomorrow, even visitors will have to leave all tobacco products outside.
Smoking has been banned in some Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction facilities for some time, while others have designated smoke-free units. Tobacco sales have been restricted in preparation for March 1, when all its facilities are expected to go completely tobacco-free. That means prisoners and guards alike who failed to quit will have to go cold turkey if they aren't already taking advantage of smoking cessation classes offered by DRC and quitting aides available for purchase.
Unfortunately, Ohio's legislative rule-making committee, which must approve the changes, put off a vote earlier this month, so whether Ohio prisons will meet their goal of snuffing out tobacco use by March 1 remains uncertain.
Health and money are at the root of the changes. Between 40 percent and 50 percent of Michigan inmates smoke. Michigan currently spends more than $300 million per year on inmate health, which can be damaged by smoking.
Nonsmoking prisoners, state officials reason, will be healthier and less expensive to care for. Michigan is facing a budget deficit of $235 million during its current fiscal year and the prospect of a deficit of $1.4 billion or more next year.
Ohio, where an astronomical 70 percent of inmates smoke, spent nearly $200 million on medical services in 2008 and is facing an even bigger budget hole than Michigan - more than $7 billion - in the next biennial budget. Obviously, cutting expenses is important in both states, and if a health benefit can be gained at the same time, so much the better.
The transition is not likely to be easy for inmates or guards, but 18 other states have already walked this road without prisoners rioting or guards quitting en masse. The experience in Michigan - and Ohio, we hope - is likely to be similar: Smokers won't like it, but they'll get used to it.
Tobacco is highly addictive and quitting isn't easy. Tensions will run high, some good employees may even quit their jobs rather than kick the habit, there could be flare-ups, and tobacco could become highly sought-after contraband. But the air will be cleaner, inmate and worker health will improve, and each state will save some cash over the long run, allowing all of us to breathe a little easier.
They're clearing the air in Michigan prisons. We look forward to Ohio quickly following suit.