Burl Cain believes that allowing Mississippi inmates to legally possess cigarettes and other tobacco products will help him reduce the contraband problem at the state’s prisons.
The veteran corrections commissioner may be right. But the upcoming change in policy — reversing a 10-year ban on smoking at the state’s correctional facilities — does not come without some potentially negative consequences.
It could drive up medical costs of treating inmates, not only those who smoke but those who inhale the noxious fumes secondhand. It could create a financial incentive — since the corrections department will profit off the sales — to hook inmates on nicotine. And it could produce corrupt business relationships between prison officials and those companies that will be providing the products.
Cain, in announcing the changes, only talked about the pluses to lifting the tobacco ban. There certainly are some.
Nicotine is extremely addictive, and those who come to prison under its vice grip are not going to quit easily. If they are desperate enough, they will do or pay anything for a pack of cigarettes.
Also, cigarettes are considered a gateway to other forms of contraband. Once guards or other employees start smuggling cigarettes into the prisons, they are inclined to smuggle other more worrisome contraband, too — alcohol, drugs and cellphones, for instance. The trade can be so lucrative that it attracts hoodlums to apply to be prison guards.
Cain and other corrections officials pledge that inmates who smoke will not be ripped off by the prison commissary, that they will be able to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products for what it costs in the free world. They also say the money made from the sale of tobacco products will be plowed back into the prisons to better the lives of inmates through education and job-training programs.
On balance, the change sounds like it could do more good than harm. But it bears close watching to be sure that’s the case.