Cold Turkey In California

Randel Davis sat fidgeting in his prison blues, savoring a hand-rolled cigarette that could be among his last for several months because of a ban on tobacco in California prisons that kicked in Friday.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," said Davis, 44, of Gardena, who is serving the last six months of a five-year stretch for a drug conviction. "I'm going to start eating grass."

Many states' prison agencies have full or partial bans on inmates' tobacco use, but national corrections, health and legislative organizations said California is one of the few to write an almost total prohibition into law.

Many states' policies also apply only to inmates, while California's extends to employees as well when they're inside prisons. California's law also covers all tobacco products, while some states permit chewing tobacco, snuff and the like.

Davis was up to about 30 smokes a day, rolling about 300 skinny cigarettes from cans of tobacco he'd been buying each month from the prison canteen until tobacco sales ended a month ago in anticipation of the new law.

He's among those saying tensions will rise, contraband tobacco will be worth its weight in gold, and prisoners and employees alike will be jittery as they try to quit cold turkey.

Department of Corrections officials say they offered smoking-cessation programs and literature to inmates and staff, but Davis and his fellow inmates in California State Prison, Sacramento, said they haven't seen them.

"Everyone around you smokes. If you don't smoke, you're smoking anyway," said James Donegan, 45, of Los Angeles, who completes a five-year term in September. "But what's going to happen when they remove this pacifier from a highly charged, stressful atmosphere? You're going to be finding other ways for people to vent their anxiety. There's going to be a lot more fights, a lot more riots."

Still, many California prisons have banned tobacco for years.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson ended smoking in the state's 11 reception centers for new inmates in 1998, and a third of California's 33 prisons have outlawed inmate tobacco use in whole or part.

For instance, Davis, Donegan and the roughly 300 inmates in the minimum security unit at the prison commonly known as "New Folsom" have been able to smoke, but not the thousand inmates behind the prison's maximum security walls.

The California Youth Authority, the prison system for youth criminals, banned smoking by its wards in 1992.

Prison officials where the ban has been in effect reported a drop in respiratory ailments and asthma-related complaints.

Department of Corrections spokesman Todd Slosek said extending the ban to all prisons "will improve the work environment and potentially drop health care costs."

But inmates are skeptical that the department has their best interests at heart, noting that medical care is so notoriously poor that national experts say inmates die from neglect or maltreatment. A federal judge said Thursday he will appoint a receiver to oversee health care reforms.

"I think it's vindictive legislation. Look at our governor: Arnold smokes, why take it away from us?" said Samuel Perez, 50, of San Francisco, who says needs a partial denture.

"When has the department ever been concerned about our health? I've been waiting two months just to get some teeth."

But several prisoners said they welcome the ban because it will encourage them to quit tobacco use - at least until they get out of prison. Then, most expected to immediately resume the habit again.

Neither inmates nor staff expect the ban to end tobacco use altogether, just send it underground.

"It's still around - there's plenty of it stashed," said Perez, who said he's been smoking since he was 12. "Maybe in six months or a year, that's it - it'll be gone."

Outlawing employee tobacco possession will make smuggling more difficult, as will a ban on care packages sent from home, he said.

Inmates caught with tobacco face discipline that includes having more time added to their sentences and possible transfer to a higher security prison.

National correctional associations report that turning tobacco into contraband actually proved beneficial by refocusing inmates' efforts away from other drugs.

"Nicotine will be the new drug we'll have to look out for," said Correctional Officer Edgar Medina, who is giving up cigars. "It's going to take some adjustment, but just like when they took the weight(lifting) piles away, they said the prisons would explode - but they've adjusted."

Years ago, the department handed out tobacco to inmates. Later, inmates could buy cigarettes or could get them in packages from family members. Most recently, only loose tobacco and rolling papers have been sold in the canteens.

The department sold about $5.4 million worth of tobacco products in 2003.

The health care savings can't be calculated, but the law's author, Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, said the state annually spends $266 million in smoking-related health care costs for its 160,000 inmates, about half of whom smoke.

The only exceptions to the law are for sanctioned inmate religious services and at employee residences on prison grounds.

By Don Thompson