Ethan Nadelmann Q & A with The Marshall Project: Why Smoking Bans in Prison Are Not The Answer

NEW YORK—(ENEWSPF)—July 2, 2015. Hundreds of inmates rioted in an Australian prison on June 30 in response to a cigarette smoking ban that was set to take hold at all 13 prisons in the state of Victoria. Tensions at the prison had reportedly been running high since earlier this month, when the facility stopped selling tobacco.

Such bans are already the norm in the United States.

The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo recently spoke with the Drug Policy Alliance’s Ethan Nadelmann about the unintended consequences of tobacco bans in prison.

Below is the Q and A with Ethan and the Marshall Project and a piece from Tony Newman of the Drug Policy Alliance titled Why Smoking Bans in Prison Are Not the Answer.  

The Marshall Project

The Case for Smoking in Prison; When cigarettes are outlawed, only outlaws have cigarettes. By Alysia Santo, July 1, 2015 –

Hundreds of inmates rioted in an Australian prison on June 30 in response to a cigarette smoking ban that was set to take hold at all 13 prisons in the state of Victoria. Tensions at the prison had reportedly been running high since earlier this month, when the facility stopped selling tobacco.

Such bans are already the norm in the United States. The Federal Bureau of Prisons removed tobacco from prison commissaries in 2006, and in January officially instituted rules prohibiting smoking and possession of tobacco, except as part of authorized religious activity. The case for outlawing smokes in prison is pretty much the same as the case for banning them anywhere else: cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other diseases for the smoker and those in proximity. But there is an argument *for *cigarettes in prison, asserts Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that advocates liberalizing America’s drug laws. The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo recently spoke with Nadelmann about the unintended consequences of tobacco bans in prison. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Australia is one of many countries that are banning tobacco in detention facilities. In the U.S., most states already have restrictions, and 20 states are completely smoke and tobacco free, both indoors and out. Based on what we’ve seen here in the states, what should Australian prison officials expect?

It’s a lesson in economics 101. In prisons where cigarettes are banned, they sell for up to $20 each, and whole packs of cigarettes can sell for up to $200. This creates a major profit opportunity for gangs, who already have networks for smuggling other things, but cigarettes take it to another level in terms of the profit potential.

And this is also a source of corruption amongst prison employees. If you think from the perspective of a prison guard, they may never be willing to smuggle heroin or cocaine, because of the moral opprobrium associated with those. But when it comes to smuggling cigarettes, you’re violating the same laws of contraband, yet you can see how a lot of guards could say, “Well, what’s so terrible about selling a cigarette? I know I’m breaking the rules, but here I can make a little money. I smoke, he smokes, what’s the big deal?”

What about the needs of the nonsmoking inmates and correction officers who pushed for these bans in some places, citing their right to work and live free of second-hand smoke?

It seems to me there’s a fair element of hypocrisy in all of this. On the one hand, you have California, one of the first states to ban cigarettes in prison. Meanwhile, the entire California prison system is under the thumb of the federal courts because they have been violating the U.S. Constitution by not providing adequate health care to inmates. So to ban cigarettes and then become notorious because inmates are dying from a lack of health care, it makes you wonder, what do authorities really care about?

We can think about this even more broadly. All scientific evidence shows if you have people addicted to heroin, putting them on a methadone program increases the likelihood they will be healthy behind bars and decreases the likelihood they’ll go back to street drugs when they get out of prison. In Australia and Europe, methadone programs are standard operating procedure. But we don’t do that here.

It also makes me think about other health interventions that prisoners are denied access to. We know there’s a fair amount of sex behind bars, and in many prisons outside the U.S., condoms are provided. Even sterile syringes are available in recognition of the fact that inmates are accessing illegally obtained drugs, and one wants to avoid the spread of HIV or Hepatitis C. Those basic harm-reduction approaches are well grounded in public health and scientific evidence. But it’s something that we in the U.S., with our much more punitive approach to incarceration, haven’t allowed. And so I tend to see much of this smoking ban as being on its face about improving the health of inmates, but given the broader punitive thrust of incarceration in America, most of what’s going on with the tobacco ban is really about saying, let’s punish them. Let’s deny them things.

There’s very little research into the impact of these bans. Ohio prisons banned tobacco in 2009, and soon after, prisons director Gary Mohr reportedly asked his department to investigate whether an increase in violence was linked to the ban. When I requested the results of that inquiry, a corrections spokesperson told me they were unable to locate any actual studies into a possible link. Why do you think we know so little about the fallout of these bans?

There’s a real paucity of any serious research examining these prohibitions. Does it increase corruption and black markets? Do tobacco bans enrich prison gangs? Are there growing levels of violence associated with this? We don’t have solid answers on any of this stuff, and I think it’s a tragedy that there isn’t any good information.

There has to be an incentive for people to want to know. Since one of the likely outcomes of such a study would be to reveal higher levels of contraband and corruption than generally acknowledged, I can see all sorts of reasons why they would not want to come out with a report showing how that’s been impacted by bans on tobacco. If you’re in charge of a prison, do you want to issue a report that produces that kind of information?

Is there a smoking policy for prisons that would make sense to you?

Why not allow a smoking area where people could consume during certain hours? And to the extent that electronic cigarettes don’t pose a broader threat, why not allow those? There’s no second-hand consequence to those, and the harms to health are fairly minimal. People smoke cigarettes not only because they are addicted, but for the pleasure, the relaxation. And now that we see that many of the pleasures of tobacco can be taken in a vaporized form, why are we depriving people who are incarcerated of that pleasure? That opportunity to relax? That just seems about being punitive and cruel.

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Huffington Post

Why Smoking Bans in Prison Are Not The Answer!, By: Tony Newman, March 30, 2010 –

According to a major story in USA Today last week, more than half of U.S. states have now banned smoking in their prisons.

The rationale that drives prisons to prohibit smoking is that it improves the heath of people behind bars and saves health care costs. While improving prisoners’ health and saving scarce tax dollars are worthy goals, in reality these bans don’t prevent prisoners from smoking — but they do create a whole range of unintended consequences, none of which are discussed in the USA Today story.

Prohibition of drugs doesn’t work in society or behind bars. Despite 40 years of a “war on drugs,” marijuana and other drugs are as accessible as ever. The same is true behind bars. It is common knowledge that drug use is rampant in prison. It’s ironic that drug war policies are premised on the promise of a “drug-free society,” yet we can’t even keep drugs out of maximum security prisons.

The prohibition of cigarettes doesn’t stop smoking; it just hands over control of the commodity to the black market and causes prices to skyrocket. An Associated Press article in 2007 looked at the impact of California’s ban on tobacco in prisons and found a burgeoning black market where a pack of smokes could fetch up to $125 dollars! The end result is that the drug trade around cigarettes becomes as violent as the drug trade around illicit drugs.

If we acknowledge that tobacco use — like other drug use — is inevitable, the next question should be: What will happen to people who are caught smoking cigarettes? We know that people behind bars are already excessively punished for illicit drug use. My colleague Anthony Papa at the Drug Policy Alliance just wrote a piece about Amir Varick Amma, who served five extra years behind bars for smoking a marijuana joint in prison. Are people going to be punished in the same ruthless and counterproductive ways for breaking the tobacco ban?

Instead of criminalizing a popular coping mechanism, the state should offer incarcerated smokers educational resources and a helping hand if they are interested in quitting. The cost of providing inmates with nicorette gum and nicotine patches would be far less expensive than adding more punitive sanctions to their already excessive time behind bars — and it wouldn’t create a new violent black market. As we learned with alcohol in the 1920s and through decades of the counterproductive war on drugs, regulation is more effective at promoting safety and health than prohibition.

Tony Newman is the Director of Media Relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (

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San Francisco Chronicle

Tobacco ban in state prisons will create black market, violence, By Tony Newman, July 13, 2005  

On July 1, California adopted a new policy prohibiting cigarette smoking in all state prisons. The legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, was sold as a way to save millions of dollars in health- care costs and improve the health of all prisoners. While there is some logic to the pro-health/ fiscally responsible rhetoric, this new law won’t prevent people from smoking; instead, it will increase violence behind bars.

Cigarettes are harmful, and there are real costs associated with treating cigarette smokers, but this policy is a case of the cure being worse than the disease. The ban will not eradicate cigarette smoking. It’s painfully obvious that prohibition has not ridded our society of drugs, be it alcohol in the 1930s or marijuana today. Even putting someone in a prison cell doesn’t keep him or her from obtaining and using drugs — in fact, many inmates report starting to use illegal substances while locked up, out of depression or desperation.

Everything that is available on the street is available behind bars, at a very high price — both in dollars and in lives. So while these policies do not deliver on their promise to eliminate drugs, they do generate collateral damage. The misperception is that drugs cause crime — in reality, it is not the substance itself, but prohibition of it, that leads to violence.

When alcohol was illegal in the 1920s and ’30s, not only did people drink, but there were shootouts over the manufacture and distribution of liquor. Today, such violence is largely unheard of. Same substance, different policies — and vastly different body counts. Similarly, when someone who sells marijuana is killed by a rival dealer, it is not the substance that killed that person, it is the violence associated with making pot illegal and artificially inflating its price. The huge profits associated with illegal drugs attract unsavory characters to the industry. And the same will be true for tobacco: If cigarettes are made illegal inside or outside prison, there will be violence over the right to sell them.