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Smoking policy relaxed at site of Ky. prison riot

LEXINGTON, Ky. - LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — The medium-security Kentucky prison that was burned last month during an inmate riot had a more relaxed smoking policy than some others in Kentucky, including four public prisons that have banned smoking altogether.

Northpoint Training Center in Burgin not only allowed smoking in designated outdoor areas but let prisoners keep matches with them.

Smoking was banned there temporarily after the riot last month, which left several buildings beyond repair and forced around 700 of the 1,200 inmates to be relocated. Now inmates are allowed to have cigarettes again but must ask guards to light them.

That is also the policy for the special management population at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, where smoking is allowed under state law, Public Protection Cabinet spokeswoman Jennifer Brislin said. Other inmates there can keep matches.

Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange was the first public prison in Kentucky to ban smoking in May 2006, followed by Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington, the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women in Pewee Valley and the Roederer Correctional Complex in LaGrange. Brislin said cigarettes were outlawed there because those institutions house inmates with health risks.

Some private prisons in the state also are smoke-free, Brislin said.

Even some prisons that allow smoking don't allow inmates to have matches. Green River Correctional Complex in Central City, which houses medium and maximum security inmates, bans them but lets prisoners light their cigarettes using electric igniter boxes attached to the wall in the prison yard.

"The smoking policy is continually looked at, but it's a long-phrase-in process," Brislin said. "The incident at Northpoint hasn't generated any new review."

Jim McDonough, the former secretary of the Department of Corrections in Florida, said that state allows inmates to smoke in outdoor areas but doesn't let them have matches. Instead, prison staff provides them with special lighters with extremely limited amounts of lighter fluid.

McDonough said there were no riots on his watch, from 2006 to 2008. Banning smoking inside an already high-stress environment of a prison could backfire, he said.

"There are very few perks in prison," McDonough said. "Generally one thing you don't tamper with is smoking, even though they know it's unhealthy. It is such an addiction, you do it with great care."

Kathleen Dennehy, former commissioner of the prison system in Massachusetts, said facilities there used to sell matches and lighters at the canteen, and occasionally inmates would set fires to trash cans in their cell.

The system has since gone smoke-free, primarily to curb health care costs. A secondary benefit is the policy gets matches out of the hands of prisoners, she said.

"Should a riot occur, inmates will use anything at their disposal," Dennehy said.

George Camp, co-president of Criminal Justice Institute, a prison consulting company, says fires are not uncommon in prison riots — even when matches are banned.

Outlawing smoking can sometimes do as much harm as good when it comes to controlling the inmate population, he said. Often, that will create a black market in which a pack of cigarettes could be sold for hundreds of dollars.

"Cigarettes become highly prized and valued contraband," Camp said. "Whereas in the past cigarettes were readily accessible, inmates may try to smuggle them in. Their value increases dramatically and you create an underground commodity."

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