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Convicts' last wish goes up in smoke

In the old days, when they were about to fry you in the electric chair or shoot you by firing squad, the chances were they would grant your last request for a cigarette. Today you would be better off asking for a Perrier.

Smoking, you see, is bad for your health and the trend to ban cigarettes from restaurants, offices and shopping malls is extending to the American prison system. From Connecticut to California, the authorities are declaring more and more prisons smoke-free zones.

Take Texas, where the smoking ban comes into effect next month in the state's 80 jails. Five people have already been executed there this year but the guardians of the nation's health have resolved to be as prissy as the most humourless Los Angeles maitre d' about allowing exceptions to the no-smoking rule.

If a cigarette is your dying wish, forget it, Larry Todd, a spokesman for the Department of Criminal Justice in Texas, told the New York Times. "We wouldn't give them a shot of whisky or cocaine so I doubt we'd give them a cigarette."

In parts of New York state, guards have taken to giving prisoners carrots and celery sticks twice a day to calm thenerves of those forced abruptly to kick the habit. If the vegetable surrogates fail to cure the nicotine addiction and prisoners are caughtsmoking they face punishment, usually loss of privileges, such as receiving one celery stick instead of two.

"This is completely off the wall," said Richard Stratton, editor of Prison Life, a magazine written by prisoners and ex- prisoners. "All it does is createmore strife inside the prisons. The wardens and guards, as well as the prisoners, are dead against it."

Mr Stratton, who spent eight years in a Los Angeles jail for marijuana smuggling, said cigarettes were used as currency to pay "for everything from sexual favours, to having your cell cleaned, to gambling. What the smoking ban means is that the value of cigarettes will go up dramatically as will the incidences of cigarette smuggling, with all the problems that causes."