Viewpoints: Should smoking in prison be banned?

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A ban on smoking in all areas of jails in England and Wales is being considered by the Prison Service.

A pilot is expected to begin next year, with a ban likely by 2015.

It is thought the move is linked to potential legal action by staff and inmates who have suffered the effects of passive smoking.

An estimated 80% of prisoners are thought to be smokers, with some warning a ban would be difficult to implement and could have a destabilising effect.

Smokers among the 84,000 inmates at prisons in England and Wales, where tobacco is used as currency on the wings, will be offered nicotine patches as a substitute.

Inmates are currently allowed to smoke in their cells but a ban would prohibit this and extend to all parts of a prison, including exercise yards.

Experts give their opinion on the issue below.

Start Quote

Mark Johnson

The law says you lose your civil liberty, not your human right”

End Quote
Mark Johnson, founder of charity User Voice

The purpose of prison is to punish people, to remove them from society, so they lose their civil liberty, but also to reform in equal measure.

But what is happening is top-down punishment, without any kind of consultation or engagement, with a very limited amount of rehabilitation.

Smoking is a choice - some might even say it's a human right. And the law says you lose your civil liberty, not your human right.

What people don't consider is the loss of choice that prisoners have already.

If you keep removing a human being's choice and responsibility, what you get when the door opens on release, and they're let back into society, [are] people who are unchanged and have got huge resentment and anger towards society.

This discussion should be about robust rehabilitation processes.

The argument for the ban, around passive smoking, could be resolved on a quite logical level. You can't smoke in a communal area anyway, only behind your cell door. The solution [if there's a non-smoker sharing] would be to move the person into a non-smoking cell.

Mark Johnson

  • Founder of User Voice, a charity led and delivered by ex-offenders with the aim of reforming prisons and cutting reoffending
  • Ex-prisoner with a history of serious crime, homelessness and drug abuse

The smoking ban is just a smokescreen. The government is treating the public like idiots. Yesterday there was an announcement about the [privatisation of] criminal justice. They're also going to introduce 5pm [lock-up] for all prisons.

So you've got the punishment element, but what you don't have is the rehabilitation.

Start Quote

Joe Simpson

[With a ban] we can be classed the same as every other worker in the UK”

End Quote
Joe Simpson, assistant secretary of the Prison Officers' Association (POA)

The POA have been campaigning for the ban since 2007 to ban smoking in our workplace, so that we can be classed the same as every other worker in the UK.

They've got a smoke-free workplace and we were disappointed that the Prison Service in 2007 went and got an exemption for prisons.

The exemption was for them to smoke in their cells, there was nothing about smoking outdoors.

But it would be the practicalities of unlocking prisoners and taking them out to the exercise yard to allow them to smoke [that would preclude it].

That would have massive implications on staff and the resources within the prison.

Joe Simpson

  • Assistant secretary of the Prison Officers' Association (POA)
  • The POA is a professional trades union for prison, correctional and secure psychiatric workers

The main complaint from our members has been that, when the [national] ban came in, in 2007, there was a study done and the levels of cotinine, which is the side effect from nicotine, were found to be at the same levels as bar workers before the ban.

I know that the Ministry of Justice are aware of litigation from non-smoking prisoners, not just on any condition that they get from second-hand smoke but being forced to share a cell with a smoker, that's what they're worried about as well.

Start Quote

Ben Gunn

If you ban tobacco, people are going to move to drugs”

End Quote
Ben Gunn, ex-prisoner and prison campaigner

The proposed grounds are health and safety, such as passive smoking, but this is rubbish. There were arrangements put in place a few years ago, when the national smoking ban came in.

Prisoners can only smoke in their own cells these days. There are prisons now where you cannot even smoke in the open air.

So that's a spurious argument. It's a fig leaf - and not a very good one. The agenda is just a more punitive regime.

Most prisoners smoke, something like 80%. A smoker [who goes] without a cigarette, is a fearsome sight to behold.

People smoke in prison for two main reasons: It's incredibly boring and incredibly stressful.

If you take away that psychological crutch, it could have significant consequences.

Banning smoking is the dumbest idea ever. Except, I can go with it, in that it's an issue that prisoners can coalesce around - and this is a truly apathetic generation of prisoners, it has been for about 20 years.

Ben Gunn

  • Former prisoner who now campaigns and writes on issues related to prison reform and criminal justice
  • Released from prison after 32 years in August 2012

[To influence prison reform] they need an issue to organise and coalesce around, and the Prison Service could just be handing them such an issue on a plate. So on that basis I'd support the [ban] tomorrow.

But another point is that tobacco is the main currency in prison - even non-smokers have some tobacco around, it's just currency. If you ban tobacco, people are going to move to drugs.

Drugs will become the default currency. So you'll have thousands of people who aren't using drugs all of a sudden interested in the drug trade.

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Juliet Lyon

[It] raises ethical concerns as to whether it is morally right to force anyone to quit smoking”

End Quote
Juliet Lyon, director of Prison Reform Trust

Four in five people in prison are smokers. Smoking is one of the few choices left to the 84,000 people behind bars in England and Wales. Stress, anxiety and self-harm are common experiences among prisoners and many turn to tobacco as a way of coping with life in our overcrowded and under-resourced jails.

So while there are undoubtedly long-term health benefits of a smoking ban for prisoners and prison staff, and the concerns of non-smokers being exposed to other peoples' smoke are understandable, the positives of introducing a ban have to be weighed against the impact it will have on prisoners and the smooth running of regimes.

Lessons will need to be drawn from the pilot and the small number of countries that have introduced smoking bans in prison, including some US states, Canada, New Zealand and the Isle of Man.

The prospect of a ban, which will extend to prison yards - making it effectively impossible for people in prison to smoke - raises ethical concerns as to whether it is morally right to force anyone to quit smoking.

Juliet Lyon

  • Founder member of ChildLine's professional advisory group
  • Now director of Prison Reform Trust and secretary general of Penal Reform International

Smoking is banned in some psychiatric hospitals and secure units. A survey of patients conducted in an English hospital found that, while a small number agreed and approved of the decision, a large majority (78%) were entirely against the proposed ban. Patients felt that they had enough on their minds, and that a smoking ban would only worsen their condition.

Prisoners and some staff are already voicing similar concerns about the prospect of a ban.

Start Quote

Amanda Sandford

There is no reason why such a policy cannot be rolled out to all prisons in the UK”

End Quote
Amanda Sandford, research manager of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)

A smoking ban would result in huge benefits to the health and wellbeing of both prisoners and staff.

Inmates who smoke will be offered safer nicotine replacements while non-smokers and prison staff will no longer be at risk of respiratory problems, heart disease or cancer from passive smoking.

Other benefits include reduced risk of fires, lower maintenance and insurance costs and reduced risk of legal challenges by non-smokers currently exposed to tobacco smoke on a daily basis.

A ban on smoking in prisons is not a new idea: it has been successfully implemented in several other countries such as the US, Canada and New Zealand.

In the UK, smoking has been prohibited for many years in the Isle of Man prison, in youth offender institutions, and all psychiatric prisons such as Rampton and Broadmoor.

There is no reason why such a policy cannot be rolled out to all prisons in the UK.

Start Quote

Sean Humber

Non-smoking staff and fellow prisoners [have the right] to live and work in [a smoke-free] environment”

End Quote
Sean Humber, head of human rights at law firm Leigh Day

Proposals for a complete smoking ban across the prison estate raise complicated legal issues on both sides.

On one hand there's the right of prisoners to smoke in the privacy of what amounts to their home, and be treated in the same way as those living in the wider community. On the other there's the rights of non-smoking staff and fellow prisoners to live and work in an environment free from the risks of second-hand smoke (SHS).

I suspect expert evidence in relation to the actual exposure of non-smokers to SHS in these situations will be important in any legal case.

However, the current situation in prisons that allows non-smoking prisoners to be locked in the same shared cell as smoking prisoners for days, weeks or sometimes longer - and therefore exposes these non-smokers to the dangers posed by SHS - is clearly unacceptable.

We believe this is a breach of their human rights. This is a matter which we are inviting the Court of Appeal to address next month.

Start Quote

Frances Cook

In the long run it could be very good for public health”

End Quote
Frances Crook, director of Howard League for Penal Reform

I'm in favour of banning smoking for public health reasons and for individual reasons - both for staff and for inmates.

However, my concern is that the way it is introduced must be done very carefully because there are a large number of people in prison who have serious mental health problems and learning difficulties.

At a time when there are massive cuts being introduced, these people who are very fragile will be locked up in their cells for 20 hours a day, some of them will have their televisions taken away, and tobacco is traditionally seen as a prop to get you through life. If we suddenly make people go cold turkey it could cause real problems.

Frances Crook

  • Chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform since 1986
  • The Howard League is the world's oldest criminal justice charity

It would have to be implemented in stages. I'm pleased that the Prison Service is talking about pilots in prisons. There are lots of different ways that it could be done, as long as it's done so that people get a lot of support, in recognition of the fact that it is extremely hard to give up smoking.

Hopefully it will be long lasting, and they won't go back to smoking afterwards. In the long run it could be very good for public health.

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