Asthmatic Inmate’s Suit Bans Smoking in Missouri Prisons

An asthmatic since age 10, Washington was assigned to cellmates who were heavy smokers.

An asthmatic since age 10, Washington was assigned to cellmates who were heavy smokers.

By Christopher Zoukis

To settle long-running litigation, including a jury verdict of $111,000 against state corrections officials, Missouri has agreed to ban smoking in all 22 of its prison facilities by next April. In an order issued Sept. 21, a federal judge issued an order embodying the agreement to make all the state’s correctional facilities entirely smoke-free by April 1 next year.

The order wraps a lawsuit filed more than 10 years ago by the former Willie Morris (he subsequently changed his name to the more distinctive Ecclesiastical Denzel Washington), an inmate serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for two separate murders he committed in the late 1980s. Twice handed death sentences in jury verdicts, he nevertheless was able in 2003 to have his sentence amended to life without possibility of parole.

An asthmatic since age 10, Washington was incarcerated in the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, north of Kansas City, where he was assigned to cellmates who were heavy smokers, ignoring the recommendation of Washington’s doctor that he not be exposed to second-hand smoke due to the added health risks. After using the prison’s internal grievance process eight times without success, the inmate brought a federal lawsuit against the prison on his own. After his case survived the state’s efforts to have it dismissed and to have summary judgment awarded for the state defendants, the judge appointed two pro bono lawyers to assist the inmate with his case.

Those lawyers eventually were able to persuade a jury the state had failed to protect Washington against health risks posed by other inmates smoking in or near the cell where he was confined for at least 20 hours each day. They presented evidence that, despite the state’s official policy against inmate smoking, inmates were frequently given disciplinary citations for smoking in their cells. Tobacco and lighters were sold in the prison canteens and commissaries, and inmates were allowed to keep tobacco and lighters in their cells. Besides it being prohibited but nonetheless common for inmates to smoke inside, it was also argued that smoking by prison staff in outside areas also posed a health risk to Washington when he was escorted through those areas to receive medical treatments.

After the jury verdict for the plaintiff, which included $71,000 in punitive damages, Washington’s lawyers quickly sought an injunction forbidding all smoking in all state prisons. After mediation sessions, the state eventually agreed, and the judge’s order ratifies that agreement. It bans sale, possession or use of tobacco, except for “authorized religious purposes,” and prohibits smoking not only inside all buildings but also anywhere inside the corrections perimeter on prison grounds. Federal prisons, by contrast, have banned all inside use since 2015, but allowed staff and visitors to smoke in designated outdoor areas.

The order is silent on how the state will enforce the new ban, but the state says it’s sending memos to every inmate explaining the new policy. There are indications the change is not universally popular: Washington’s legal team is now working to get him transferred to an out-of-state facility, since their client has reportedly received threats from other inmates unhappy about the coming change.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.