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After cold turkey, jail serves sweets

Thursday, August 18, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by FRANK MAIN Crime Reporter

They're not getting nicotine gum, nicotine patches or any of those other aids that recovering smokers can find in their drugstores.

Inmates in the Cook County Jail, who went cold turkey Aug. 1, when a smoking ban was imposed, are being given only one remedy to soothe their frazzled nerves: candy.

Hard candies -- like those red-and-white peppermints that sit next to restaurant cash registers -- are served with all three daily meals, said Bill Cunningham, a spokesman for Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, who runs the jail.

"It's something to keep their hands and mouths occupied," Cunningham said. "It does help people who are struggling to quit smoking, according to our medical staff."

The ban on tobacco products and matches, which the sheriff launched to improve the health of the jail's nearly 10,000 inmates, has not led to any violent uprisings or fights, as some people predicted, Cunningham said.

"Overall, it has been a pretty positive experience," he said.

A few inmates have been sent to the jail's Cermak Hospital for treatment of symptoms related to tobacco withdrawal. But withdrawal symptoms are not new to the jail: Heroin and alcohol addiction is a major problem among inmates.

Cunningham said sales of products at the jail's commissary seem to have fallen since the smoking ban. There have been rumors that some inmates have been encouraging others to boycott the commissary in a protest of the ban, he said.

Drug-sniffers at the door

A handful of inmates have been caught with contraband tobacco or matches, Cunningham said. But no guards, who also are banned from smoking, have been nabbed with the banned materials, he said.

To combat smuggling, Sheahan is installing drug detection equipment at all of the jail's entrance points. The machines, bought with nearly $1.1 million in asset forfeiture funds, can detect even small amounts of narcotics or tobacco. Next week, officials will start using one of the machines in a pilot program.

"It's important to pick the right setting for the machines," Cunningham said.

Overly sensitive machines can cause problems. At one federal prison, an ion scanner found cocaine on a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, but an investigation concluded he had traces of the drug on his hand because it had been on the steering wheel of a rental car he was driving, Cunningham said.



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