OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite efforts to snuff out smoking rates and related health care costs, one lawmaker wants to change course and allow prison inmates to light up again behind bars.
State Rep. Rick West, R-Heavener, said the nearly six-year ban on cigarettes sales and smoking inside prisons has caused nothing but problems for inmates, wardens and correctional employees.
He’s proposing a controversial measure that would allow inmates to legally purchase cigarettes from prison canteens and then smoke in designated areas at prisons.
West is challenging a state law prohibiting the possession of lighted tobacco in many indoor public places or work places. He’s also trying to undo part of a 2012 executive order issued by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin that bans smoking on all state properties. In her February 2012 order, Fallin cited the health issues smokers face as well as the risk of secondhand exposure.
“It’s caused more problems and didn’t solve anything,” West said. “If the intent was that no smoking be allowed amongst the prisoners, that certainly didn’t happen. They’re smoking in there right now as we speak. What it did was create numerous, numerous problems within the system, and the biggest one is the black market that was created.”
West said prison gangs now control the cigarette market inside prisons. Inmates who buy the product, but can’t pay their debts, get beat up. Other inmates, meanwhile, are ripping out electrical plug-ins to light up illicitly since they can’t access matches or lighters, he said.
Oklahoma is among the majority of states that forbid smoking behind bars. Only 16 states still allow it, West said. Federal prisons also have banned the practice, he said.
Between August 2010 and July 2012 — when cigarettes were last sold in prisons —inmates spent nearly $3 million on smoking tobacco products, according a state budget analysis.
Lawmakers critical of the measure fear that revenue won’t be nearly enough to pay for inmate’s smoking-related medical costs like cancer. Taxpayers are responsible for funding the medical expenses of incarcerated inmates.
State Rep. Carol Bush, R-Tulsa, said she’s also concerned about the health of prison employees exposed to secondhand smoke. Plus, she said it’s expensive to properly ventilate a smoking area to protect nonsmokers.
“I do think it’s a huge safety concern with having cigarettes and open flames in prisons,” said state Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa. “I do think addictive substances being available to people who are probably already suffering from some sort of substance abuse is also risky, but I appreciate what you’re trying to do. From a safety concern, this is not a good bill for us to pass.”
Lawson, though, voted the measure out of a House committee, saying he didn’t want it tied up. The measure advanced by a 5-4 vote. It will now face the scrutiny of the entire state House.
Department of Corrections officials declined to say whether they supported West’s proposal. However, a budget analysis noted that removing tobacco hasn’t negatively impacted canteens’ income.
“Cigarettes or not, they are still going to spend the same amount each week, whether it’s on potato chips, ramen noodles or tobacco products,” officials wrote. “Keep in mind that once they stop spending their money on tobacco, they will start spending it on something else.”
Jackie Switzer, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, which advocates for prison employees, said he used to work at community work centers that allowed smoking. Though there were problems with inmates smoking in non-designated areas, he said it never really became a major safety issue.
“As a whole, most officers would be OK with allowing tobacco sales back into prisons,” he said. “When it was removed, all it did was create another black market item. It created a lot more work for officers having to search out and write up infractions for tobacco. (And) it created a lot more opportunity for, I guess, debts to be accrued inside the prisons between inmates.”