Government & Politics

Missouri prisons to go smoke free after double-murderer wins in court

After a court order Thursday, the Missouri prison system must go smoke-free on or before April 1.
After a court order Thursday, the Missouri prison system must go smoke-free on or before April 1.

Even after his death sentence was commuted to life without parole, double murderer Ecclesiastical Denzel Washington suspected that the state of Missouri was still intent on killing him.

With second-hand smoke.

At the prison in Cameron, the asthmatic Washington kept being paired with heavy smokers, despite doctor’s orders that his quarters be smoke-free.

Now, after a decade-long legal battle, Washington is declaring victory with a settlement that not only protects his health but orders the Missouri prison system to go smoke-free on or before April 1.

“This is a win ultimately for the people who work and live in Missouri’s correctional facilities,” said Phillip Zeeck, who along with another attorney at the Polsinelli law firm, Michael Foster, handled the federal court case pro bono.

It could also be a win for Missouri taxpayers, who cover the health care costs of the more than 30,000 inmates at the state’s 21 correctional facilities.

The price tag for treating inmates for smoking-related illnesses did not come out at trial, but Foster said it’s clearly “expensive for the taxpayers” who foot the bills.

Officials with the Missouri Department of Corrections declined to comment Friday about their plans for the transition. The prison system already offers smoking cessation programs.

Smoking is already banned inside Missouri’s prisons, with smoking only allowed outside in designated areas. But the rules are frequently violated, Washington claimed.

Inmates can buy tobacco products and lighters in prison canteens, and they are allowed to keep that material in their cells, where they can spend as much as 20 hours a day, Foster said.

At trial last spring, Washington’s lawyers presented evidence showing that hundreds of inmates have been written up for smoking violations at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron.

Missouri is one of a handful of states that permit tobacco use on prison grounds. Kansas banned indoor smoking in the 1990s, and smoking outdoors was banned in 2003. Smoking at federal prisons is also prohibited.

Under his former name, Willie Simmons, the 53-year-old Washington was sentenced to death in 1989 for the 1987 murders of two St. Louis women, Leonora McClendon and Cheri Johnson.

McClendon died of asphyxiation from having a white cloth stuffed down her throat and held in place by a T-shirt tied around her head. Johnson was strangled with a necktie.

Washington was resentenced to life in prison in 2003.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks