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Cigarette ban for prisons will go up in smoke

This move has little to recommend it, and lots that could go wrong

A-ha! It seems the Government has settled on a cunning plan to deal with prisoners: take away mild pastimes, and leave the really intractable stuff – like rehabilitation – to someone else. G4S, say. In April Justice Secretary Chris Grayling banned 18+ movies; under new plans cigarettes may also be verborten. Perhaps somebody has their ‘cause and effect’ flowchart the wrong way up in Westminster, or can anyone explain why the Government sees fit to pursue pernickety regulations while the underlying problems facing prisoners and the prison system remain at large?

Actually, there is a fairly obvious and almost understandable answer to that. Fixing those problems (or trying to) requires a lot of effort, some parts of a budget, and success is not particularly visible to voters, 100 per cent of whom live outside prison walls. Being seen as tough on criminals, though, by snuffing out their cigarettes, will surely please the sterner elements of British society. (Ukip made a play for the Tory right with its pledge to double the current number of prison places.)

But what will this cigarette ban achieve, should it come into practice? There are three answers to that, none of which are particularly pleasant. First, and most immediately, it will make the prison population slightly more irritable, as switching the puff-and-drag habit for nicotine patches or e-cigarettes is rarely a calming process for smokers – and 80 per cent of prisoners smoke.

Second, it will wear down the rule of prison officers. We already know that prisons have difficulty in keeping out illegal drugs. Now imagine yourself a prison guard for one moment, attempting to prevent the smuggling of a legal drug to which 4/5 of your inmates are something more than partial. Add in staff shortages, and prison overcrowding. It’s fair to say, you’ll have to have eyes in the back of your head to keep control of the black-market. More likely you’ll have to turn a blind-eye here and there. And so, a truce of inane rule-breaking will be upheld – one in which both prisoner (behaving badly) and prison guard (failing at the job) lose.

And the third problem. Sterling. Prisoners are expected to pay for their tobacco products. Yet they are to be ‘provided’ with nicotine patches, and e-cigarettes, to try and wean them off smoking. Who do you think will end up paying for that? That grand symbol of upstanding parsimony, the taxpayer. Admittedly, the same tax payer who pays for the NHS, which in turn pays for the treatment of lung-cancer even in prisoners. But let’s just say the ban isn’t perfectly upheld, and let’s just say the trial isn’t particularly successful…what then? The taxpayer will front up for tons and tons of extraneous nicotine patches.

Perhaps this scenario is too gloomy. It would be a good thing if prisoners were pushed to give up smoking. But at a time when privatised prisons are performing atrociously, and the overcrowding problem remains, why are we even talking about Marlboros anyway?