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Howard jail bans smoking after inmates set fires during Olympics


Following the lead of the Mall in Columbia and county-owned buildings, the Howard County Detention Center has adopted a no-smoking policy.

The jail became smoke-free July 27 after inmates started small fires because they were upset at not being allowed to stay up late to watch the Olympics, said James M. Rollins, detention center director.

The no-smoking policy had been in the planning stages since March and was scheduled to take effect in September. However, Mr. Rollins decided to adopt the policy early because of the fires, he said.

The policy prohibits inmates from having tobacco, matches or lighters. The policy also applies to jail staff, though they may smoke outside the prison building.

So far, there have been no violent incidents due to the ban on cigarettes at the jail, although one inmate reported to the infirmary complaining of nervousness, and a visitor attempted unsuccessfully to smuggle cigarettes into the jail by taping them inside a newspaper.

"It's been implemented with very little problem," Mr. Rollins said of the policy.

But some long-time smokers at the jail say they've become nervous and more hostile since the smoking ban.

"I'm nervous all the time because I can't smoke," said Donald Gardner, a 61-year-old inmate who's been smoking for 40 years.

"You need a cigarette to calm your nerves here every once in a while," he said.

Inmate Dion Nias said he believed the ban violates his civil rights.

An attorney with the county Office of Law said that although prisoners have rights, the jail administration has the authority to limit those rights.

"He [Mr. Rollins] has a really wide berth in determining what is best for the general safety of the inmates there," the attorney said.

"Rights and many privileges can and are reduced by the very nature of prison," he said.

To create a smoke-free jail, detention center staff worked with the county Health Department to make the transition go as smoothly as possible.

County health educator Anne Grauel provided booklets to inmates with tips about quitting smoking and how to handle the urge to smoke.

The jail commissary has gradually reduced its inventory of cigarettes and added hard candy and chewing gum to its selection of wares.

"They've been good-selling items since we put in the non-smoking policy," Mr. Rollins said.

Jail populations tend to have many heavy smokers, and depriving them of their cigarettes can cause problems, Ms. Grauel said. However, a study of Wisconsin jails found that if inmates are given time to prepare for a non-smoking policy there is no increase in violence in the jails.

Many correctional facilities have adopted no-smoking policies as the hazards of second-hand smoke have become widely known.

The county Office of Law told Mr. Rollins of some cases where inmates had successfully sued jails, claiming they had been subjected to the dangers of second-hand smoke.

Mr. Rollins said the office told him it was time to adopt a no-smoking policy here.

County jails in Prince George's, Montgomery, Harford and Carroll counties also have adopted no-smoking policies, Mr. Rollins said.

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