A smoking ban in prisons won't really help cons - but it could destroy their economy

Ministers are planning to make UK jails smoke-free. But, argues former inmate Charlie Gilmour, the delicate economy 'inside' means a tobacco ban would cause havoc
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"Smoker or non-smoker?" After "guilty or innocent?" it's one of the most important questions you'll ever be asked – should you have the misfortune to be sent to prison. A staggering 80 per cent of prisoners smoke, but there's far more to their tobacco habit than mere nicotine: tobacco – "burn" – is the gold standard of the prison economy and cigarettes are branded indelibly into convict culture.

When I was incarcerated in 2011, for my actions during anti-government protests the previous year, I recall my surprise at discovering that prisons were, somewhat ironically, one of the last bastions of liberty in an increasingly smoke-free world. Your prison cell is your home, legally speaking at least, so the 2006 Health Act does not apply.

Cigarettes are relatively easy to acquire in most UK prisons. After strip-searching new arrivals and confiscating their property, the first task for prison officers is to sort the cig-suckers from the health freaks and bunk them up accordingly. A "welcome pack" containing half an ounce of tobacco, cigarette papers and a snazzy HMP branded lighter is handed out to the former group, while a crumbled column of custard creams is the reward for the latter. After that, tobacco can be purchased weekly from the prison "canteen" or, if you run out mid-week, borrowed from the wing "tobacco barons" at ruinous rates.

I had no idea, when I was sent from Kingston Crown Court to HMP Wandsworth, that I was sitting on a gold mine. At reception, the prison officers gleefully slam-dunked my shower gel and toothpaste into the bin and confiscated my radio for "security reasons". A whole ounce of Old Holborn, however, was inexplicably waved through. My first cellmate, a smart and personable drug dealer, gave a low whistle when he saw my stash. Like grandmother's savings, he insisted I hide it under the bed.

The reasons for this soon became clear. Paper money is forbidden in prison. Instead, the inmate economy turns on "burn". Almost anything you might want or need outside of the weekly shop has to be purchased with brown gold. A haircut or a matchstick frame for that picture of your kids? That'll be half an ounce. Want the resident artist to paint your portrait or the wing drug dealer to sort you out with a decent spliff? One ounce. Fancy a tattoo? That'll certainly set you back a bit.

Banning smoking in prisons, as the Government is currently planning, looks at first glance like a positive development. While not quite as blood-stained as money, tobacco is still the source of much evil. Direct health risks aside, addicts often get sucked into debt spirals from which there can be little hope of escape.

"Double-bubble", the practice of borrowing an ounce one week and paying back two the next, often leads to trouble. My fourth cellmate, a kind but slightly inept burglar, got himself in so deep with the tobacco barons that he had to move wings; he refused to go out on exercise for weeks, fearing violent reprisals. I ended up paying off the debt for him only to see him drawn back in within days.

In principle the ban could act as harsh medicine for helpless addicts but, in reality, it will probably cause more problems than it seeks to solve. In my experience there are few groups of people more adept at getting around the rules than prisoners. Drugs, after all, are banned. And yet, when I was in HMP Wandsworth, the air was so rich with cannabis smoke you could almost get high from simply drawing breath. Alcohol is also verboten. Prison breweries do a roaring trade in dangerous (and disgusting) hooch regardless of regulations.

As Alex Cavendish, an anthropologist and former inmate who served two-and-a-half years in various establishments, wrote on his excellent blog Prison UK: "The real winners will be the smugglers."

Attempts to stub out cigarettes elsewhere seem to support this gloomy outlook. New York's notorious Rikers Island jail banned them in 2003 and, in doing so, set up shop for "brown marketeers" who make a killing at $200 a pack. Worse still, earlier this month nicotine-starved inmates tore a Melbourne prison to bits during a riot that lasted for 15 hours.

Could a ban on "burn" in UK prisons spark trouble? The writer Noel "Razor" Smith, who spent three decades behind bars, says it would lead to a "war of attrition with the prison system… obviously there would be violence". However, in the Isle of Man prison, which went smoke-free in 2008, it has simply led to greater desperation. Hazardous DIY fags made by soaking anything flammable in the toxic fluids from boiled down nicotine patches have, according to former inmates, sprung up instead.

It's hardly surprising that those trapped in our miserable prison estate crave release. The response of one inmate to Public Health England's inquiry says it all: "[Tobacco is] everybody's lifeline in here." As Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, observes: "Our prisons are overcrowded and under-resourced. We have seen a rise in prison suicides and in violence. The prisons are currently struggling to get prisoners out of their cells and into purposeful activities, let alone enforce a smoking ban."

In other words, there's no doubt our prison system is going up in smoke – but tobacco is not the culprit.