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Inflaming prison conditions


SHORTLY BEFORE I left the Maryland Penitentiary in 1993, my friend, Martin, was stabbed to death over a couple packs of cigarettes. At age 24, he was a prison drug dealer, a risky but powerful position.

I didn't see the incident but some fellow inmates told me what happened. It seems that Martin had given another inmate some heroin with the promise of future payment by cigarettes, the prison-yard currency. When the guy returned to Martin demanding more drugs on loan, Martin refused and demanded payment. Eventually, a fight ensued and the young man pulled a knife from the waistband of his pants and stabbed Martin in his neck, killing him almost instantly.

During my years in prison, I met a number of people who were seriously injured, including one guy who was blinded, in fights over "money," better known as cigarettes in prison.

Knowing the importance of cigarettes to prisoners, I was shocked when I recently learned that a state ban on smoking by prison inmates inside prisons is to go into effect tomorrow. This policy will be instituted to comply with the statewide ban on smoking in the workplace that went into effect in March.

Under the policy, prisoners will be allowed to smoke when they go outside for recreation or jobs, but not in their cells. The prison commissary will continue to sell cigarettes.

I don't see this new policy working for many reasons. First, a prisoner's cell is not a prisoner's work place but a prisoner's "home away from home." When a prisoner comes "home" he needs to unwind and cigarettes help many prisoners do that.

Second, a smoking ban is bound to reduce the sales of cigarettes, which will result in program cuts. A percentage of cigarette sales is used to help pay for extra recreational equipment and other items that keep prisoners occupied. It's never good to let prisoners have too much unoccupied time.

Third, if prison officials can't keep illegal drugs away from prisoners, how are they going to keep cigarettes from being smoked in cells?

Fourth, since 1992 correctional officers have been prohibited by law from smoking in Maryland prisons. I didn't know that was the law until I read it in the newspaper. When I left prison in November 1993, prison guards regularly smoked on the job.

If the smoking ban is actually enforced, I think we can expect an uprising by inmates. Because to make such a ban effective, prison guards will have to constantly monitor prisoners to see if anyone is lighting up. That type of monitoring is unsettling to the men and can lead to danger ous situations.

This sort of action makes the prisoners feel that the administration is disrespecting them as human beings; it leads to resentment that can turn into violent action.

I was always a smoker, but I smoked even more in prison. When I left prison, I was smoking two packs a day. The cigarettes helped me deal with the stress of prison life.

On commissary day, the one-day-a-week visit to the prison store, you would have to wait in line for hours to make a purchase; most of the guys in line would be buying cigarettes.

For drug users, cigarettes were very important. When I left prison you could get a bag of heroin -- enough to last one day -- for three packs of cigarettes.

You can buy lots of things with cigarettes in prison, including the intimate attentions of a female guard.

Life and work in prison are dangerous enough. In fact, the situation is so bad that it seems ridiculous to inflame conditions for the sake of appearing tough on those prisoners who choose to smoke a few cigarettes in the privacy of their cells.


H. B. Johnson Jr. writes from Baltimore.

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