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Ban on smoking at Cook Co. Jail makes sense

Thursday, June 16, 2005
Daily Southtown

THE ISSUE: Cook County Jail to ban smoking Aug. 1. Officials cite health concerns as reason for prohibiting inmates and employees from smoking.
WE SAY: We support the ban and hope a full commitment is made to enforce it. Smoking is banned in many gathering places around the country. Prisons shouldn't be an exception.

There are more than 10,000 inmates in Cook County Jail, and about half of them are smokers. Beginning Aug. 1, none of them will be allowed to smoke — at least for as long as they're imprisoned there.

Cook County officials have approved a ban on smoking at the jail, not only for inmates but for guards and other employees as well. Officials have concluded that the benefits from such a ban outweigh any potential drawbacks. The primary benefits are health-related — not only for those who smoke but for those who have been forced to breathe secondhand smoke.

The drawbacks include the potential for a tobacco black market taking hold in the jail and behavioral problems that could result from inmates going through nicotine withdrawal. Inmates currently are allowed to buy cigarettes, matches and other tobacco products at the prison commissary. The amount they are allowed to purchase will be reduced gradually until August, when all sales will stop. Counseling will be available to those suffering from nicotine withdrawal. Meanwhile, prison officials will try to prevent the smuggling of tobacco into the jail, which could prove challenging. Last weekend, a guard was charged with smuggling in drugs and cell phones.

We support the ban. Smoking bans are in effect throughout the country in work places, restaurants and other public gathering spots. Prisons, too, in Texas and California have banned smoking, as has the nation's largest prison complex, Rikers Island in New York City. Cook County inmates may complain about a ban, saying smoking is one of few freedoms they have and helps take the edge off of being incarcerated. But there is no reason that we can see why jail inmates, of all people, should be given a break at a time when smokers on the outside are finding fewer and fewer public places in which they can smoke. The John Howard Society, which monitors prison conditions, supports the ban.

Officials in Oregon say there was an increase in assaults on guards in the months after the implementation of a smoking ban there, but Cook County officials say that increased violence has not occurred at most prisons that banned smoking.

Cook County Jail officials will have months and maybe years of hard work ahead of them trying to enforce the smoking ban. A serious commitment will be needed from the sheriff's office on down. We trust they are up to the challenge.


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