Working on the chain-smoke gang

By Joe Mellor, In house Reporter 

Prison Smoking Ban

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 – the pilot will start next spring in prisons in south-west England, including Exeter and Eastwood Park Women’s jail – with a ban likely by 2015.

Smoking in prisons has been restricted since the ban in public places came into force in 2007. But inmates are allowed to smoke in their own cells, because they are regarded  as their permanent or temporary home.

It seems like a fair policy, as you can’t smoke in other public places, although interestingly the Houses of Parliament are exempt, as they are a palace rather than a place of work.

But both houses agreed to a ban on smoking in any internal areas. MP’s  are not allowed a crafty fag in  their office but legally they can light up, only convention stops them, unlike all other public buildings.

However, smoking is allowed on the parliamentary estate on the Commons Terrace, Commons Court, North Terrace and a designated area on the west side of Canon Row courtyard.

Most public buildings have banned smoking from all external and internal areas, to promote a healthy work force, but this does not apply to our elected officials.

Overall the smoking ban was not the crisis people predicted and if anyone has been in a bar in Germany, for example, will probably agree we are much better for it.

The move was linked to potential future legal action by staff and inmates who have suffered with effects of passive smoking.

But the rates of smoking above prisoners are worryingly high. It is estimated that 80 per cent of prisoners are smokers, in a prison population of around 84,000.

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.

You won’t be able to just nip out for a quick fag as the prison officer holds the back gate open.

Guernsey and the Isle of Man were the first two European jurisdictions to introduce a blanket smoking ban in prison grounds. Guernsey Prison governor Dave Matthews said the ban had “gone very well, we have allowed them to purchase their own e-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine in a much safer way than normal tobacco does”.

And it has worked in other secure units in the UK. Ian Gray, Principal Policy Officer at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH)  – played a leading role in campaigning for the introduction of smokefree legislation – says,

“All mental health units have been smokefree for over five years and we know of some excellent models which can be shared with the prison service to support their prisoners and staff whilst these necessary changes are introduced.”

On the face of it, cutting smoking rates should be seen as a positive, as the harmful effects of tobacco are universally known. But enforcing it on prisoners, some highly dangerous, poses some difficult problems.

Andrew Neilson, from campaign charity the Howard League for Penal Reform, suggested a ban would be difficult to enforce.

He said,

“Prisons are going through unprecedented budget cuts, prison resources, staff resources have been cut. There may well be good intentions behind this policy proposal, but it will undoubtedly put a lot of pressure on jails which are already pretty stretched.”

His thoughts were backed by Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association

He said,

“There is no pretending otherwise, it could cause disturbances but they have done it successfully in Canada and in young offender institutions in England and Wales.”

A lot of addicts, smoke out of boredom, if the prison service had more money to engage with prisoners instead of caging them in their cells for long period of times, then smoking rates might fall anyway.

Worryingly, there were rumours, Lynton Crosby, the Conservative party’s election co-ordinator, chaired a meeting last year where members of the tobacco industry discussed how to block the government’s plan to force cigarettes to be sold in plain packets. Hardly promoting a smoke free environment.

Prisoners, like politicians regularly get a bad press, so perhaps members of Parliament should consider a ban in all areas internal and external within the Palace of Westminster and finally agree to only allow tobacco to be sold in regimented boxes.

For once a breath of fresh air in politics.

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