S.C. prisons to go smoke-free by '08

COLUMBIA -- S.C. corrections director Jon Ozmint wants the state's prison system smoke-free by Jan. 1.

Ozmint plans to launch a pilot program in five prisons and the S.C. Department of Corrections headquarters on Aug. 1.

He said the state's 2,300 prisoners and nearly 4,000 employees shouldn't be surprised by the ban on all tobacco products.

"Everybody's known the nonsmoking thing was coming," Ozmint said Tuesday during a tour of corrections facilities on Broad River Road.

Critics have expressed concerns about how prisoners would react to smoking bans.

But, state corrections officials don't foresee violence, department spokesman Josh Gelinas said. He pointed to 2003 when violence predicted after the department banned pornography in prisons failed to materialize.

Former S.C. corrections director Doug Catoe said any time a prison system makes a big change, there is the possibility for backlash, but said major problems are unlikely.

"I don't know of a system that has done it (banned smoking) and had major violence," he said.

Catoe said corrections systems that go smoke-free save money on health-care costs for inmates.

Included in the pilot program are Broad River in Columbia, Tyger River in Enoree, Evans in Bennettsville, Lieber in Ridgeville correctional institutions and Kirkland Reception and Evaluation Center in Columbia.

The federal prison system already is smoke-free.

As of two years ago, 19 state prison systems had smoking bans, according to the National Institute of Corrections.

Richland and Lexington county jails also ban smoking.

Other state prison directors have said smoking cessation programs played a key role in a nonviolent transition.

Prisoners will be able to buy lozenges that will help curb their craving for nicotine, Ozmint said.

Ozmint announced soon after taking over the agency in 2003 that he would increase the cost of cigarettes 10 percent as part of a plan to ban smoking in prisons by spring 2005.

Name-brand cigarettes at state prisons have gone up 80 percent in the past two years to $5.49 a pack while the price of generic cigarettes has increased 300 percent to $5.23, Gelinas said.

The price of cigarettes will increase 10 percent twice this summer, with the first bump starting next week, Ozmint said.

Each time cigarettes go up, the number of prisoners smoking decreases, he said. Gelinas said Tuesday he couldn't provide an estimate of how many prisoners smoke.

Ozmint said the Department of Corrections will lose the money it makes from selling tobacco when the ban goes into effect, but he said it's the right thing to do.

"You feel dirty for putting off a decision you know is right just because you're making $600,000 to $800,000" a year, he said.

Ozmint said Tuesday a couple of factors contributed to the decision to ban tobacco, including lawsuits related to second-hand smoke and the health of the prisoner population.

In 2005, the Corrections Department lost a lawsuit to an asthmatic man who claimed his rights were violated when he was exposed to second-hand cigarette smoke.

Ozmint said then he had put off his planned smoking ban in part because so many prison employees smoked. Also, the state insurance plan did not offer stop-smoking programs to employees at that time.

Reach Tate at (803) 771-8549.