By Alex Cavendish
"It’s going to be bloody." Those were the words of one serving prisoner in a Category B jail in the Midlands. Because he was speaking on a payphone which can be monitored by prison censors, he chose his words carefully, but there was no doubting the anxiety in his voice. When you are doing 20 years, a quiet life in prison is important.
The reason he, like many other prisoners, is predicting trouble ahead is not that our prisons are both overcrowded and understaffed, although those factors will be important if there are widespread disturbances across the prison estate. It’s that an impending ban on smoking is set to be rolled out across jails in England and Wales. In the next few days, we're expecting the high court ruling on the government's appeal in the case of a prisoner who complained that he had to breathe in other people's smoke. But regardless of how the appeal goes, the Ministry of justice has confirmed it plans to slowly phase out smoking in prisons.
This, rather than wider issues of prison reform or rehabilitation, is the number one issue being discussed behind bars at the moment.
For many inmates, tobacco is a top priority (along with access to drugs, legal and illegal). An estimated 80% of adult male prisoners smoke 'burn' – as it is called inside – although the actual figure may be higher. Most weekly canteen orders are topped by pouches of Amber Leaf rolling tobacco, since prisoners can rarely afford to buy packs of 'ready-made' cigarettes.
Like any restricted commodity that people want in prison, tobacco serves both as a rare pleasure and as an everyday currency in a place where cash is officially prohibited. Although other canteen items – tinned tuna, chocolate – are also used for trade and to settle debts, 'burn' is king. Want a reasonably decent haircut on the wing by an amateur barber? Half an ounce. Need urgent repairs to your personal clothing by one of the inmate tailors? Pay for it with tobacco.
Although most prisons now restrict smoking to an individual's cell or sometimes the exercise yard, there has been little reduction in demand, especially as inner city Cat-B prisons have a constantly revolving population, with many arriving each weekday fresh from court. New receptions are currently all offered the chance to buy a 'smoker's pack' containing rolling tobacco, papers and a disposable lighter. Almost all sign up for one on credit to be repaid from any cash in their pockets or from future earnings from work inside.
The deadbeat, poor and desperate beg the more fortunate for 'a skinny burn' (thin roll up) or fish dog ends out of bins, off the yard or even out of urinals. Many prisoners are deep in debt to wing barons, particularly if the are also using drugs such as so-called legal highs which are easily obtainable across the prison system.
Smoking calms prisoners down in what is a very tense environment. Many inmates also live with mental health problems or else cope by self-harming. Violence is rarely far beneath the surface and when men are confined in tiny concrete boxes, designed for one but now housing two or even three for up to 22 or 23 hours each day, anything that takes the edge off their frustration and anger helps to keep the lid on the simmering pressure cooker. Moves to ban smoking couldn't have come at a more inopportune moment in prison history.
Ironically, this comes at a time when reform is in the air thanks to Michael Gove, the justice secretary. Many prison campaigners are cautiously optimistic that there will be a downsizing of our bloated jail population, which currently hovers just below the 86,000 level, as well as a refocus on rehabilitation and education. However, the forthcoming ban on smoking risks setting off a chain reaction of violence and, in the worst case scenario, even full scale riots (or "concerted indiscipline" as the Ministry of Justice prefers to call it).
Interestingly, although a total ban is supported by the Prison Officers Association (PAO) on behalf of its members who wish to work in a smoke-free environment, the initial legal case was originally launched by Paul Black, a serving prisoner who is part of the 20% minority who don't smoke. Black claims that his own health has suffered as result of being exposed to smoking by others and last year he won a case against the government in the high court.
As a lifelong non-smoker myself, I remember how awful it was to be forced to share a small cell with a fellow prisoner who chain smoked all day and much of the night. Within a day or so I was feeling physically sick, so I do have every sympathy with those who hate to be confined with the smokers, especially when the rest of society has become accustomed to smoke-free public spaces.
The Prison Service has been making progress in preparing for a gradual nationwide ban across the system. For months prisoners have been offered the alternative of purchasing electronic 'vapes' on their canteen sheets and a significant number are taking these up. In addition, many prisons have already established smoke-free wings or houseblocks, as well as offering smoking cessation clinics that provide free nicotine patches or tablets.
Politicians are also moving cautiously. As prisons minister Andrew Selous remarked last year: "We have no plans to move to smoke free prisons overnight." He added that the smoking ban will be implemented in what he described as "a phased way", with operational safety and security the top priorities.
Nevertheless, a total of eight prisons have already been identified for the first round of smoke-free rollouts. The high court appeal will prove crucial because it will, to a large extent, determine the timetable for implementation across the rest of the prison estate. The very real fear is that the prison authorities may have to move far quicker than careful planning and prudence demands, with all the risks this may involve. It would indeed be ironic if, by extinguishing smoking, judges fuel the smouldering fires of discontent across our dysfunctional prisons. There could be a long, very hot summer ahead.
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.