By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"I'M 47 YEARS old and I've been in prison for 30 years. I've smoked for 37 years. I don't want to quit smoking. They can put me in the hole every day, I don't give a shit. I'm not gonna quit." Gale Rachuy, an inmate in the Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater and part of the estimated 70 percent of the prison population that smokes, seems remarkably composed considering that he's presumably being forced to go cold turkey after a state law prohibiting smoking in state correctional facilities went into effect Friday.
Maybe Rachuy's composure has to do with the fact that when he says he's not going to quit, he obviously believes it.
Like many of the prisoners in Stillwater, the offenses that landed Rachuy in prison were nonviolent. However, the smoking ban has both Stillwater inmates and staff concerned about ban-related violence. Although cigarettes are still circulating among prisoners ("There's a lot around--they're hid"), at $15 a pack they aren't accessible to everyone. According to Rachuy, at least five prisoners considered to be potential organizers of prison riots have been shipped to Oak Park Heights, a maximum-security prison, over the past few weeks. "The administration were not the ones in support of the ban to begin with. Their spokespeople went to the Legislature and asked them not to pass the bill, but they passed it anyway. Within a week, watch. This is going to turn into a very dangerous place."
In accordance with this assumption, Rachuy and 29 other Stillwater prisoners accused Sen. Dave Kleis (R-St. Cloud), Gov. Arne Carlson, and Corrections Commissioner Fred LaFleur of imposing cruel and unusual punishment by placing inmates "at risk to potential harm" by other inmates. A couple of weeks ago, the case was dismissed. "We may just file another lawsuit depending on what happens in the next 90 days," says Rachuy, alluding to the fact that if no punitive measures are taken against smokers, he has nothing to complain about.
Indeed, according to Mary McComb, assistant to the prison's warden, penalties for smoking will be relaxed during the initial three months of the policy. The first time prisoners get caught smoking, they will get a warning; the second, third, and fourth time, they will lose their recreation privileges. After that, prisoners will be subject to segregation.
"If they aren't going to invoke the full force of the law in the next 90 days," laughs Rachuy, "then they can do that for the next 20 years, too." Even if the law is enforced, Rachuy doesn't think it will deter smoking. "Segregation? Who cares. When you're locked up, you're locked up."
According to the official prison briefing, nicotine patches will be on sale in prison canteens until October 31 for those who need help quitting. No supplements to the patches--diet, exercise, or support programs--have been provided, and at $80 and up, the patches are off limits to most. "If you can't afford the patches, you can write to the warden and the warden will consider it on a case-by-case basis, but the three people that I know that have submitted kites for the free patch haven't heard anything back yet. That was three weeks ago," says Rachuy.
Many see the ban as merely revoking a privilege that shouldn't be extended to prisoners. To those people, Rachuy has plenty to say. "We pay taxes on anything we get. They don't give us anything, not an aspirin, nothing. We have to buy it. A few years ago the Legislature made a real big deal out of people in prison and how they can sit back and watch color TV and cable TV. Part of that was true, but we paid for that. Taxpayers were under the misguided view that they were paying for it."
As Rachuy heads off for a strip search after our interview is over, he cheerfully notes to the warden's assistant, "Now that we're not allowed to have lighters and matches, we should be able to get all our legal papers back because they won't be a fire hazard anymore. We should be able to have all the paper we want. That's how it is, when there's a good one that goes for the state, there's always a good one that goes for the inmate."