In Missouri correctional institutions, one of the few — albeit unhealthy — comforts allowed to inmates has been smoking. But due to a recent court ruling, inmates will no longer be allowed any tobacco products on prison premises.

The decision to ban tobacco makes Missouri one of the last few states to do so. However, Northeast Missouri county jails had already banned the vice years ago.

Court ruling

Ecclesiastical Denzel Washington, 53, avoided the death penalty for murder when his sentence was reduced to life in prison. However, the threat of a death sentence persisted whenever the asthmatic was exposed to secondhand smoke while housed at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo.

In late September, Washington won a court judgment ordering state prisons, housing a total of about 32,000 inmates, to be smoke-free by April 1.

The sale, possession and use of all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vaping devices, will not be allowed after that deadline. A designated smoking area outside of the jail perimeter will be available for use by employees and visitors.

“Most states already have this (total) ban in place, and Missouri is one of the last to implement it,” department communications director Karen Pojmann said. She explained that smoking indoors was banned in all state prisons in 2003. However, smoking was allowed in designated areas outside, and tobacco products could be purchased in prison commissaries.

Before the April ban is implemented, health care providers will offer smoking cessation classes, counseling and other support services for employees and offenders.

“I think it will be an adjustment for everyone, but hopefully it will create a healthier environment,” Pojmann said.

The Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green is one of about 20 facilities affected by the tobacco ban.

Years ahead

Although Missouri just recently put the ban in place, county jails began banning cigarettes more than 10 years ago.

“We banned them around 2006 due to health reasons,” Marion County Sheriff Jimmy Shinn said. “Inmates don’t like the policy, of course, but banning cigarettes has helped us tremendously.”

He pointed out that after the ban, requests to see a nurse or doctor decreased, and electronic equipment began functioning better.

“Most of our equipment is computerized, and it was suffering from smoke damage,” Shinn said.

Scotland, Shelby and Pike counties instituted a total tobacco ban primarily because of health reasons, representatives said, but Lewis and Monroe counties banned cigarettes for physical safety reasons.

“It’s a liability to have any type of device to light a cigarette, such as matches or a lighter, so that’s a big reason why we banned cigarettes about six years ago,” Lewis County Chief Deputy Rob Power said.

Monroe County Sheriff David Hoffman agreed.

“Honestly, we banned cigarettes more so because they were fire hazards than for health reasons,” he said. “Inmates have a lot of time while incarcerated to plot how to start a fire.”

Small comfort

Despite banning cigarettes, some jails allow e-cigarettes as a way to calm inmates and allow them a small comfort.

“When you put people in jail, you are taking away their freedom,” Hoffman said. “Putting someone in jail and taking away their nicotine compounds problems. We talked a lot several years ago about it, and we think allowing e-cigs is a good way to help inmates cope.”

Clark County Jail Administrator Mary Pablonis agreed.

“Many of our inmates are used to smoking, and letting them use e-cigarettes helps level them out,” she said.

However, others see the smoking alternative as still harmful to one’s health and costly to supply.

“The sheriff’s office thinks they’re too expensive, not a good use of money for anybody, and they can cause disturbances,” Power explained.

Regardless of whether county jails have a total tobacco ban, all county sheriffs and their respective representatives expressed support for the state’s tobacco ban.

“I firmly believe that what the state is doing is a positive step in the right direction,” Shinn said. “It’s especially good because people are in a confined area without much ventilation in jails, and this policy will protect the health and safety of everyone involved.”

By Ashley Szatala |   Herald-Whig