Editorials

Are Missouri prisons prepared for mass nicotine withdrawal when smoking ban takes effect?

The Missouri Department of Corrections will ban smoking in prisons on April 1. Is the state really prepared for the challenge that comes with thousands of prisoners craving nicotine?
The Missouri Department of Corrections will ban smoking in prisons on April 1. Is the state really prepared for the challenge that comes with thousands of prisoners craving nicotine? AP

Our first reaction to the news that the Missouri Department of Corrections will soon ban smoking in the state’s prisons was: Wait, you can smoke in prison?

Yes, making Missouri one of only a few states where the official view on prisoners lighting up has been smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, boys. And they do got ‘em, because they’re sold in all the prison canteens.

That ends in March, ahead of the smoking ban that will take effect on April 1. The policy has to change then, because an asthmatic murderer spent the last decade suing the state over all the secondhand smoke in his cell, where inmates are not supposed to smoke but apparently do.

Prison staff will get free smoking cessation classes and will still be able to puff away in certain areas outside the prisons, but inmates will have to buy their nicotine patches. They can also join a support group, and ask for counseling.

Will that be enough to smooth the transition? If you’ve ever been around even one person who is quitting, you know why we wonder. According to court testimony, most of the state’s 30,000 prisoners do smoke, and that is a lot of irritability for underpaid guards to manage. Especially when they may be fighting the same cravings.

Withdrawal from nicotine can cause not just irritability, but anxiety and depression. There’s a high incidence of smoking among those who already suffer from a mental illness, as many in prison do. And there’s some evidence that stopping smoking may actually make prior psychiatric problems worse.

That’s not a reason to keep the state’s prisons smoke-filled. In fact, Missouri should long ago have followed the example of Kansas, which banned smoking indoors in the 90s and stopped allowing it outside in 2003. But it is a reason to make sure prison staff and inmates are as prepared as possible.

“It’s going to be a challenge for sure,” says prisons spokeswoman Karen Pojmann, and may well be “a little bit bumpy.” Judging by the crowd standing around outside her window smoking even in this week’s cold, she’s not sure how many are getting a head start on the deadline.

Officials might also want to get extra security for the inmate who sued for the new no-smoking policy: Ecclesiastical Denzel Washington, who is in for life after choking one woman to death by stuffing a cloth down her throat and strangling another with a necktie.

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