Smoking in Prison HMPs 2017

A recent court ruling has brought the prison (HMP) “Smoking Ban” in England and Wales back into the spotlight. I always said that the ban was good and necessary. I was also clear, I did not want it happening while I was still serving at Her Majesty’s smoked filled pleasure. I am a non-smoker. However, I do know, if you want to make a prisoner hellfire cranky, you take away his tobacco.

 Smoking Ban HMPs

Smoking Ban HMPs

I only served fourteen months, but I could always see it was going to be a significant short-term problem. I preferred to put up with second hand smoke rather that be around whenever the government finally got around to enforcing the ban. For that matter, most staff smoke, and cannot be bothered to enforce  a ban. Ministry and HMP officials often make statements like: “Prisoners can’t smoke in communal areas – only in their cells and outside in the exercise yards.” Those statements, as with most MoJ statements, bare little relation to what actually happens in prison. In a similar fashion, the hysteria and media hype, created by these same people – the warnings of prison riots and instability - is never likely to materialise either.

Ever since Big Tobacco and governments stopped lying about the risks associated with smoking, the Western world has been both progressive and unrelenting in banning it. There is no question that smoking should have been properly ban in UK prisons years ago. Other places, including some states in America, Canada and New Zealand have managed to ban smoking – without realising the prison service’s vision of Armageddon and pandemonium.

Recent riots in Melbourne which reportedly involved 300 inmates were supposedly in protest over a soon to be enforced smoking ban across the state of Victoria. This type of report stokes the fears of the ministry and prison officials, as 80% of UK inmates smoke. They fear it will bring instability in an already fractured prison system.

In Thameside, I did the numbers on my own wing. There, around 95% of offenders were smokers. In fact, Thameside is almost exclusively double bunks, but the fast track to being in a room on your own is being a non-smoker.

But, this wasn’t perfect either. On one of the few occasions when I did share, I was cohabiting with a 28 year old man with special needs. James (not his real name) told me that officers had frequently tried to force him to share his cell with a smoker - even though he was Asthmatic. However, James learned that if he made enough of a fuss they would usually move the smoker out of his cell. At times, this did require his family calling into the prison to protest on his behalf.

The MoJ conducted an analysis of the health effects of smoking in prisons. The MoJ has declined to release that 2007 report – requested under the Freedom of Information Act. They declined on the basis that it, “could lead to an inaccurate impression, causing damage to staff (HMP) morale, which would likely to prejudice the maintenance and security and good order of prisons.” It does make one wonder what could be in that report that would have such a detrimental affect on staff morale.

Successive ministers have delayed or only paid lip service to implementation plans, however, a recent court case has now forced the issue. The government must finally act. The judge in his decision said, “As I have already said in my judgement, the secretary of state (at that time Chris Grayling) proceeded on an understanding of the law which is wrong. Accordingly, the secretary of state would be expected to reconsider his decision in accordance with the law.”

Sean Humber, the solicitor (at law firm, Leigh Day) who represented Paul Black of HMP Parc in this critical case, said, “This is quite a big step forward because, while the prison service has been talking about its intention for prisons to go smoke-free for years in very general terms, it has repeatedly delayed identifying a timetable or even to trial it at certain prisons.” Perhaps it is only the real threat of having to pay out legal actions that have motivated the government to finally act. It certainly has nothing to do with the human rights of inmates that the government has widely, and happily, ignored up until this moment. The government certainly does not appear to care about inmate’s health or they would never have taken prisoners out of the NHS system and left them to the dregs of a ‘privatised’ prison health service.

Implementation of the smoking ban was and is never going to be easy. Prison governors and unions have warned repeatedly that a ban could trigger serious control problems apart from addiction, as tobacco is the main currency among inmates. They fail to mention that tins of tuna are also common currency in prison.

Before any ban, nicotine replacement therapy needs to be comprehensively available across the prison estate. One person that I did get to know in Thameside was quite keen to quit smoking. He approached healthcare after seeing a poster on a wing that suggested help was available. When he asked for patches or an electronic cigarette they laughed at him. They offered no help, but they did ask where they could find ‘that poster.’ So, if the government is offering nicotine replacement to prisoners, he would like to know where to find it?

Thanks to this court case, Michael Gove, the new Minister for Justice, has for the first time on behalf of a government, announced a pilot scheme that will begin in early 2016. It will include eight prisons, starting with in Parc in Brigend, Wales (G4S) where Paul Black’s case originated. Whatever fears ministry officials, staff and prisoners have about the ban there are two things that will mitigate all the predicted horribleness.

First, the problem is only short-term. If the ban works, most smokers will be through the worst of nicotine withdrawal in a matter of months. People will simply adapt, as hard as that might be at first. This problem will be over in relatively short order.  It is true many prisoners will pick up the gauntlet and stop smoking for their own benefit. That brings us to the second problem: not everyone will stop smoking.

It is foolhardy to think that a ban will simply stop smoking in prison. Since the MoJ and HMPs can’t stop heroine, steroids, marijuana, hash, Tramadol, Valium, etc. from getting into prisons, how the hell are they ever going to stop cigarettes from getting in. It will just become one more part of a black market that no government, minister or HMP has ever come to grips with.

08/2018 Update on Smoking in HMPs - Scotland -

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Written by Rob Stafford and Kirk T Brown