RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA - It should come as no real shock that, when it comes to smoking, North Carolina prisons have followed along with the rest of society.
Fifty-two of the state's 76 prison facilities now ban indoor smoking. No doubt, others would eventually adopt the same policy if lawmakers left the matter in prison officials' hands.
But giving the people who actually run the prisons say in how they are run doesn't appear likely in this instance. Instead, legislators are poised to make the indoor smoking ban apply throughout the prison system.
Sen. Charlie Albertson, a Duplin County Democrat, is chief sponsor of legislation to ban smoking inside prisons. He points out that many county jails have done so, and believes the state ought to follow suit.
Lending support to the proposal, Albertson cites rising health care costs among the prison population and the incidence of fires related to smoking.
Of course, forcing prisons to comply with the evolving mores of society is hardly earthshaking stuff. Many people no longer tolerate being around cigarette smoke. Plenty of nonsmoking prisoners may be no different, so restricting smoking to the prison grounds seems reasonable enough.
But another part of the bill has prison officials worried that it could be a first step toward a comprehensive smoking ban. A pilot program would require one lucky prison to be chosen for a complete ban - indoors and out - with the Department of Correction to report its findings to the legislature over the next two years.
Speaking before a House committee, Divisions of Prisons Director Bennett Boyd called an outright smoking ban "a problematic issue," his obvious fear a breakdown of discipline.
Albertson responded that at least a dozen states have enacted outright smoking bans, with Texas prohibiting prisoners from smoking since 1994.
Still, evidence from other states shows that comprehensive smoking bans may be a cure worse than any disease.
Indiana enacted a prison smoking ban in 1997. Within three years, its prisons had become turf for a thriving black market where cigarettes sold for as much as $8 each. Prison officials had conducted 412 investigations into trafficking or cigarette possession. Forty-four prison staffers had been fired for being part of the illicit cigarette trade. With inmates' prison terms rising because of cigarette violations, the cost to taxpayers also rose. One estimate put the price tag at $6.6 million a year.
Georgia banned prison smoking in 1994, only to rescind the policy two years later because of the same kind of problems. Prison officials later acknowledged that smoking is a key pacifier that helps keep order.
Certainly some people will argue that prisoners should be stripped of most pleasures enjoyed by the population at-large.
But an outright ban of a product that is legal and readily accessible outside prison fences promotes a Prohibition-like atmosphere within the prisons. It would do no one - prisoners, guards nor taxpayers - any favors.
© The Sanford Herald