Inmates fume at plans to ban smoking in prison

Plan linked to potential legal action by staff and inmates over effects of passive smoking
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Locked up for up to 23 hours a day, the few moments of light relief on offer for thousands of inmates residing at Her Majesty’s Pleasure are set to dwindle further. After pubs, trains and public places, the prison estate for England and Wales is set to introduce a smoking ban – sparking warnings from former prisoners about a possible backlash.

Following the lead of Canadian jails and young offender institutions, prisons are set to become smoke-free zones because of concerns of legal action from non-smokers claiming to suffer the effects of passive smoking, according to the prison officers’ union.

Labour said yesterday that the plan to run a pilot at a number of undisclosed sites was an “odd priority” after claiming that inspection reports had warned that prisons were increasingly stretched anyway. The scheme is expected to be launched in the spring of next year and if successful could be rolled out across all prisons within 12 months, according to reports.

However, the scheme was met with opposition by some groups and former inmates who warned of disturbances with the withdrawal of tobacco and replacement with nicotine patches. Around 80 per cent of inmates in England and Wales are believed to smoke.

“One inmate told me: ‘I was on 23-hour bang up for six months and my cigarettes were my only comfort’,” said Mark Johnson, a former prison inmate who runs User Voice to prevent r-offending. “He said there’s going to be a lot of trouble.”

Former inmates said it was hard to exaggerate the importance of smoking and tobacco inside prison, which is used as a currency. “It was vital for getting through the long weekends of bang up,” one former offender told The Independent.

“You could only get it once a week, so if you had half an ounce, you’d break it and give someone a quarter [ounce] and get a half ounce the next week.

“Double bubble: that was how it worked, just like the drug trade.”

The smoking ban introduced in England in 2007 restricted smoking in prisons but allowed inmates to light up in their cells. Figures obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform revealed earlier this month that nearly a quarter of all prisoners were expected to share a cell meant for one person, increasing the prospects of disputes over smoky cells.

The shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan said: “Recent prison inspection reports show they are increasingly stretched on a daily basis battling simply to stop disturbances.

“A smoking ban in prisons without planning and resources seems an odd priority at a time when David Cameron’s out-of-touch government has failed to deliver a so called ‘rehabilitation revolution’.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “We are considering banning smoking across the prison estate and as part of this are looking at possible sites as early adopters.”

Smoked out: The pain of withdrawal

Prisoners who are forced to stop smoking will find nicotine withdrawal symptoms “a challenge” but may come to appreciate the long-term benefits of quitting, health experts have said.

Feelings of restlessness, irritability and frustration are likely to be exacerbated by the prison environment. However, Professor John Britton, chair of the Royal College of Physicians tobacco advisory group, said that where smoking bans in prisons had been tried – such as in New Zealand, Guernsey and the Isle of Man – they had been successful.

“This is a big opportunity to improve the health of a very vulnerable group with very high levels of nicotine addiction, to do something positive for them and to help alleviate the poverty that most people are in before they are sent to prison and often return to when they leave,” he said.             

Charlie Cooper