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Smoking bans: Many wardens love ‘em; inmates don’t

SHARE Smoking bans: Many wardens love ‘em; inmates don’t

Cigarettes used to buy everything behind bars, from toilet paper and toothbrushes to drugs.

So what happens when the prison currency becomes contraband, when the Marlboro Man gets pushed aside for Little Debbie? Fast trading - and desperation."We had a Christmas tree in the hallway that they had to take down because someone tried to smoke it," said Dennis Carter, an inmate in Philadelphia, where prisons banned smoking Jan. 1. "You got people going crazy because they can't smoke."

Fellow inmates have smoked grass, dirt, orange rinds or apple peels wrapped in toilet paper. At $2.20 per box, tea bags also are popular smoking substitutes.

Those who have cigarettes can trade them for Little Debbie snack cakes that go for $1.19 at prison commissaries, or for Twizzlers licorice (59 cents) and blueberry muffin rolls ($1.79).

"I refuse to pay five boxes of cakes for a cigarette," said Carter, a 38-year-old rape and robbery convict who smoked Newports for 15 years.

While inmates call smoking bans cruel and unusual, wardens say prisoners are getting healthier and jails are becoming cleaner. Smuggling? It's still going on, but prisoners are bringing in forbidden smokes instead of marijuana and cocaine.

America's prison population had best get used to this.

Lock-ups from California to Massachusetts have gradually gone smokeless in the 1990s, helped by lawsuits from non-smoking inmates. Most new prisons open smoke-free.

Better health - not punishment - is the goal, wardens insist.

"In the modern-day jails, our windows don't open, and you have an air-changing system," said Calvin Lightfoot, warden of Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Cor-rec-tional Facility. "Per square foot, you have more people living than in any other place.

"This sounds like nothing, but you couldn't even wear your clothes in your home because you reeked," he said.

In Bucks County, a Dec. 1 ban came only after a union filed a grievance claiming foul air caused workers' headaches and sinus problems.

The county cleaned its ventilation system and found nothing other than "the problem of 500 people smoking in a jail 24 hours a day," said Warden J. Allen Nesbitt.