Prisons brace for new tobacco-free policy

Sunday, February 13th 2005, 2:18 pm
By: News On 6

TAFT, Okla. (AP) _ Oklahoma prisons are preparing for a new tobacco-free policy that goes into effect at midnight Monday for inmates, as well as staff and visitors.

The ban eliminates all smoking, smokeless tobacco and all ``tobacco-like products'' such as lighters, matches and cigarette papers, from the workplace, according to the Department of Corrections guidelines.

If inmates are caught with tobacco products, they can lose credits they've earned, or they can even lose their chance at parole, said Cheryl Bryan, warden's assistant at Jess Dunn Correctional Center in Taft.

``It will stay on their record for a year, and they can even lose their television,'' she said.

Staff members who disobey the rules also are subject to disciplinary action. And anyone, including visitors, who violates the rules can be charged with a felony count of bringing contraband into a penal facility.

Prison officials expect to find hidden tobacco that inmates have tried to secret away for use after the ban goes into effect.

``It's going to keep everyone on their toes more,'' Bryan said. ``You've got people who are going to risk bringing in drugs. You'll have people who risk bringing in cigarettes.''

Kevin Robinson, 34, of Sulphur is an inmate at Jess Dunn and normally uses smokeless tobacco products. He quit about three weeks ago, not because he wanted to, but because the facility's canteen quit selling tobacco products on Dec. 31, and he didn't stockpile enough to last until Tuesday.

``It's pretty rough,'' he said.

He's chewing gum as an alternative, but he has tried cigarettes in place of his usual ``dip.''

``I've smoked a couple of cigarettes since then, but they make your clothes stink and your breath stink,'' he said. ``I'm dealing with it day by day.''

Inmate Gerald Bishop, 38, of Texas is an ex-smoker. He quit about a year and a half ago.

``I didn't like what it did to my teeth,'' he said. ``I didn't like my teeth getting brown or the taste in my mouth.''

It was hard giving up cigarettes, but he sees the advantages of quitting.

``I had to work out and stay busy,'' he said. ``First, I went to eating candy and put on a little weight.''

Like many addictions, once the nicotine addiction has been eliminated, the desire still remains for most people.

``It's not easy, especially in this environment. It's not easy,'' Bishop said.

Bishop and Robinson estimate about 90 percent of the Jess Dunn population smokes.

Coy Hill, 50, an inmate from Tulsa is angry about having to quit, especially since he blames the Oklahoma Department of Corrections for his habit that has spanned more than 30 years. When he first went to prison at the age of 17, in addition to the clothes he was given when he arrived, he also was given tobacco and rolling papers. Now he's struggling with his addiction.

``I was smoking three packs a day. Now I smoke three cigarettes a day,'' he said. ``They don't want to help you with the nicotine patches.''

Nicotine patches are available for purchase, but they're more expensive than many inmates can afford.

``They're $42.99 for the first step,'' Hill said. ``And $23 for the lozenges.''

Hill said he's concerned about the impact the new policy may have on prisoners.

``People are on edge about it. The Department of Corrections gave us plenty of warning it was coming, but after 33 years, it's not easy for me.''