The smokers among Georgia’s nearly 60,000 prison inmates will soon have to snuff out their cigarette butts for good.
Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens has ordered all state prisons smoke-free by the end of the year, with the first three prisons instituting bans this month.
It’s a move that has been tried in the past and comes after most of Georgia’s county jails have been smoke-free for years.
In Hall County, jail inmates at the 1,000-bed lockup on Barber Road aren’t allowed to smoke, unlike their neighbors at the Hall County Correctional Institution, who are permitted smoke breaks outside in the morning and before dinner and can also smoke outdoors on work details when allowed by the guards supervising them.
Warden Avery Niles said the facility, which houses state inmates, likely will go smoke-free along with the state prisons.
“If the Georgia Department of Corrections says that’s going to be the standard, then we will go with the standard,” Niles said, adding that “from a public health standpoint, I think this is an excellent initiative.”
According to the Department of Corrections’ annual report, in 2009 the state was projected to spend $226 million on prison health care, including $72 million in direct care. That was up from $133 million in 2004, when the state had approximately 12,000 fewer prison inmates.
The National Commission on Correctional Health Care estimated in a 2004 study that 70 percent of incarcerated people are smokers, compared with the national rate of 23 percent of adults in the U.S.
“Tobacco use is linked to a variety of health problems which contribute to the rising cost of health care,” Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Peggy Chapman said in an e-mail response to questions about the new Tobacco-Free Initiative. “The Georgia Department of Corrections’ mission of protecting public safety includes actions to support a healthy lifestyle among inmates and minimizing growth in health care costs, which are paid for by the citizens of Georgia.”
Currently most Georgia prison inmates are allowed to smoke outside in designated areas at designated times, using wall-mounted lighters similar to car cigarette lighters. The old Hall County jail on Main Street in Gainesville had the same devices in some jail day rooms before smoking was banned 10 years ago.
Owens, who took over as Georgia’s prison chief last year, has noted that most county jails in the state are already smoke-free, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview that inmates “were getting off tobacco in the county jails and then getting back on it when they came into the state system.”
During the late 1990s tenure of state Corrections Commissioner Wayne Garner, smoking was briefly banned, but it didn’t last.
“Public awareness and support for the issue was not as strong as it is today and the initiative was withdrawn,” Chapman said.
Back then, prison smokers had to quit cold turkey. This year, the prison system is giving inmates advance notice and offering an eight-week, two-hour-a-week smoking cessation program from the American Lung Association. Also, smoking cessation lozenges will be available at prison commissaries.
Among the first three prisons to begin the gradual phasing-in of the ban this month was the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, where many new inmates are sent for initial processing before being transferred to other facilities. The prison is also the home of Georgia’s death row.
Chapman said condemned inmates will not be allowed to smoke, even after a final meal.
“Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison is a nonsmoking facility and this policy will remain in effect,” she said.