Comment: Prison cigarette ban is just the MoJ blowing smoke

New measure to stop smoking in prison is just MoJ covering its own back, writes Eric Allison

Prisons smoking ban

Will the smoking ban in prisons really put a stop to cigarettes? Photo:
Ali Catterall

There are times when I seriously question the sanity of politicians who decide penal policy.

Take the book banning fiasco last year. The then justice secretary Chris Grayling decided that relatives and friends of prisoners could no longer send books to them.

The banning of books is associated with despotic dictators and regimes. Didn’t Grayling know the directive would create a fuss?

His decision was overturned in the High Court last December when Mr Justice Collins ruled the ban unlawful. And sanity prevailed when new justice secretary Michael Gove officially scrapped the ban in July.

But here we go again with another unfathomable restriction, this time on smoking in prisons. A trial ban will be imposed in prisons in Wales and the south west next January, with a view to rolling it out across the prison estate later.

I declare an interest: I am a smoker and am the first to admit it is a dangerous and dirty habit. But smoking is a legal addiction, which four out of five prisoners indulge in. So eventually, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) will order some 68,000 prisoners to stop smoking. I wish them luck.

The MoJ say the ban will reduce health risks to prisoners. To me it looks a panic measure after a non-smoking prisoner won damages after being forced to share a cell with a smoker. It was clearly wrong to force that litigant to breathe in the tobacco fumes of his cell mate.

But it should not be beyond the wit of prison staff to ensure this does not happen. In that civil action in March, a High Court Judge ruled that the MoJ had “wrongly understood” 2006 health and safety laws which banished smoking in the workplace, or in enclosed public spaces.

Following the damages award, a spokesman for the MoJ indicated they would appeal the decision and said “prison cells in England remain exempt” from the 2006 legislation. I am no lawyer, but I do not see cells as workplaces, or enclosed public spaces. So the ruling was open to appeal, as the judge who made it indicated.

‘Why should they cells be exempt?’ people are surely asking. Smoking is harmful: why pay legal fees, from the public purse, to defend the rights of prisoners to smoke? And if, as seems likely, prisoners will be offered aids, such as nicotine patches to help them kick their habit, it might be said the system will do prisoners a favour. So why not impose the ban?

If all our prisons were run on a well ordered basis, were not overcrowded and did not contain thousands of people suffering mental health problems, then a well-run, properly financed, smoking cessation programme might just work.

But we are nowhere near that stage. I know I am beating the same drum I have banged before but the system is in a mess, a hole.

On Monday, we saw yet another thoroughly depressing report from the Prisons Inspectorate. Aylesbury prison holds young men aged 18-21, where one in five prisoners are on basic regime, some spending as little as four and a half hours a week out of their cells. In the six months prior to the inspection, there had been 115 assaults on prisoners and staff and 46 fights. More than half the prisoners told inspectors they had felt unsafe at some point in their stay. Use of force by staff was “very high and rising”. Does anyone imagine a smoking ban will reduce the tension in this or any other prison?

This summer a riot broke out in a 600 person prison in Victoria, Australia, after a smoking ban was imposed. Hundreds of prisoners went on the rampage and police used tear gas to quell the uprising.

It is not difficult to imagine prisoners here following suit when they are deprived of their fix.

And as sure as night follows day, if tobacco is banned in prisons, it will be smuggled in. Mobile phones and drugs are illegal in jails, yet the wings are full of them.

The ruling, in the civil action in March has put the MoJ in a difficult position. But they could have stalled; they are quite good at stonewalling (see the prisoner voting issue).

As it is, they seem to have forgotten the first rule for those in a hole: stop digging.

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