Prison smoking ban will worsen the crisis behind bars

"Another key concern is the potential impact of a smoking ban on the smuggling of contraband tobacco into prisons"
"Another key concern is the potential impact of a smoking ban on the smuggling of contraband tobacco into prisons"

By Alex Cavendish

So it's official. A leaked HM Prison Service (HMPS) document reveals that a total smoking ban is set to be imposed in all high security and long-term prisons in England and Wales from August 31st. Some officers and inmates are warning that the move is likely to cause further unrest in our overcrowded and understaffed jails.

The controversy surrounding tobacco use in prisons is not new. It has been a regular topic of heated debate since widespread restrictions were placed on smoking in enclosed workplaces back in June 2007 when the Health Act came into effect. However, prisons were exempted on the grounds that a cell constitutes a prisoner’s 'home'. Most jails have also permitted inmates to smoke on outdoor exercise yards.

At the same time, prison canteens make a very healthy profit from the sale of pouches of rolling tobacco, a percentage of which goes to HMPS. Few inmates can afford 'ready made' cigarettes, but up to 80% of the adult population inside are smokers, so DHL – which operates the contract to fulfil prisoners' canteen orders – has a captive and receptive clientele of over 85,000 to service weekly.


Watch any queue of inmates lined up to sign for their clear carrier bags of goodies from the weekly canteen delivery and the vast majority will be collecting their pouches of 'burn'. Many buy nothing else.

Rolling tobacco functions both as the legal stimulant of choice for a majority of prisoners, as well as an important form of internal currency since cash is prohibited inside jails. Most goods and services within prisons are priced in ounces of burn, although tinned tuna and bars of Euro Shopper chocolate are subsidiary forms of loose change behind bars.

There are two main camps when it comes to the question of a prison smoking ban. The most vocal consists of those who cite health and safety in the workplace as the overriding concern. This is the line taken by both the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) and non-smokers – staff and prisoners alike – who object to living and working in smoky atmospheres. One prisoner in particular, Paul Black, has been pursuing the government through the courts in a bid to have the current smoking policy declared unlawful and a total ban imposed under the 2007 legislation.

On the other side of the argument are the vast majority of adult prisoners who do smoke tobacco and a minority of governors and other prison staff who fear that imposing a ban on one of the very few legal pleasures left to inmates will not only flood the prison adjudication system with smoking-related cases, but could also lead to further violence and even riots. Even the normally conservative Prison Governors’ Association has urged caution over the implementation of tobacco bans.  

To the relief of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) – which found itself in the odd position of defending prisoners' right to smoke – the Court of Appeal ruled against Mr Black in March 2016 when it restated the claimed Crown exemption for prisons. This gave the government much greater scope for phasing in a policy of smoke-free jails gradually. In fact a small number of prisons, mainly in the south-west of England and Wales have already imposed smoking bans.

In the run up to the imposition of a ban on tobacco, existing smokers are offered support from 'smoking cessation' programmes run by prison healthcare clinics. However, some staff have ceased handing out nicotine patches due to desperate inmates trying to smoke or otherwise ingest them.

Where smoking has already been banned the results are mixed. In March the Independent Monitoring Board at HMP Cardiff reported concerns that a rise in violence, vandalism and possession of contraband tobacco could be linked to the smoking ban. The report observed: "There is no proof of a direct link with the ban, but the indirect consequences of the increase in offences such as damage to property, assaults, possession of unauthorised articles and disobeying lawful orders could be due to the stress resulting from tobacco withdrawal."

Even more ominously, the IMB report warns that inmates may be turning away from tobacco to other drugs. "The smoking ban does appear to also have contributed to an increase in the use of other substances smuggled into the prison."

One aspect of the implementation of the smoke-free policy that few prison governors are willing to discuss is how problem smokers are often transferred to other jails where smoking is still permitted in cells. Hard core nicotine addicts know that they only need to cause trouble for staff before they are 'shipped out' to another establishment. This in turn is reflected in a rise of disciplinary offences, including violence.

According to the leaked document from HMP Frankland the Prison Service is intent on rolling out the smoking ban to include all high security (Cat-A) and long-term prisons in England and Wales from the end of August. This will mean that some of the most dangerous and unstable inmates in the system will soon be told that they can no longer smoke or purchase tobacco products from the canteen. The ban will also extend to prisons holding lifers or those serving very long determinate sentences. Critics suggest that this is a cynical move by the MoJ as lifers, including inmates serving indeterminate sentences for public protection, have the most to lose by trying to circumvent a smoking ban or by becoming violent.

Category B local prisons are not yet included in MoJ plans to ban tobacco. These are the inner-city jails that take prisoners – both convicted and on remand – straight from court. They are often seriously overcrowded and understaffed. A lot of violence occurs in these increasingly dangerous establishments and insiders express fears that enforcing an immediate smoking ban on nervous, anxious or angry inmates on the day they arrive in reception could lead to major disorder, as well as an upsurge in self-harm and suicide. 

Another key concern is the potential impact of a smoking ban on the smuggling of contraband tobacco into prisons, either by visitors or by corrupt members of staff. Jails are already awash with illegal substances, including traditional drugs and so-called new psychoactive substance (NPS). Although now illegal to possess behind bars or to produce or sell, NPS – often known generically as Spice or Black Mamba – remains legal for personal use outside of prisons. In addition to more prisoners switching to NPS, there is now the prospect of tobacco joining the list of contraband that is being sold for up to six times its street value to prisoners.

Although tobacco already forms an important part of the illicit internal economy in prisons, the steep rise in violence is often attributed – at least in part – to rocketing levels of debt among users of Spice and Mamba. Adding high cost contraband tobacco into the mix risks further destabilisation of our already dangerously out of control prison system.

Alex Cavendish is an author, academic and former prisoner. He runs the the Prison UK blog. You can follow him on Twitter here

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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