‘It’ll be hell’: The view from inside prison about a smoking ban

On the morning of June 30th, they banned smoking in Melbourne prison. By afternoon, one of the worst riots in recent Australian penal history had broken out. Hundreds of inmates lit fires, broke walls and smashed windows in a 15-hour outbreak of disorder. Staff were evacuated and police units sent in. Footage from news helicopters showed prisoners wandering the grounds with their faces covered and sticks in their hands knocking down doors.

By the next week, Western Australia's correctional services minister, Joe Francis, decided he wouldn’t be following Victoria's example. But in the UK, a recent court battle has seen a judge rule that there is no prison exemption from the smoking ban. Under fierce pressure from Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) and other anti-smoking groups, the government is planning on a pilot scheme banning smoking in prisons in Wales and the south-west, with a view to an eventual nationwide roll-out.

"It would be crazy," former prisoner Stephen Gedge says. "If they're going to stop it I can see there being hell. Absolute hell.

"I'm not a smoker. But when I went in there I was so stressed even I smoked a few roll-ups with my cell mate to chill me out."

With so many prisons overcrowded, two inmates often share cells meant for one, meaning relations between smokers and non-smokers can be tense.

"I was on the top bunk a couple of times," Gedge says. "If my cell mate smoked beneath me then it rises. It's annoying. We did have a couple of rows with me saying 'can you go to the window?' It's awkward. There's lots of arguments about that in there. But you have to give and take."

Four out of five prisoners smoke and tobacco acts as a form of currency in prison. Many prisoners arriving in jail for the first time have severe mental problems. Others are suddenly having to go cold turkey off highly addictive drugs, like crack or heroin. Those who work in prisons warn that depriving them of cigarettes as well could push them over the edge.

"When you think about drug addicts – I mean, they've taken your freedom, if they take that as well, it's ridiculous," Gedge says.

A prison worker who has spent recent weeks hearing the growing concern from inmates about the ban says:

"The addiction is there. And obviously taking that away from them will definitely create a lot of conflict. I'm a smoker as well so I can imagine what it would be to just suddenly take it away from you. You kick and punch what's in front of you. So that could lead to some sort of riots or self-harm.

"If there's a way forward they need to think it though very carefully how to implement it because that will affect the security of everybody."

Stopping prisoners smoking in their cells will be very difficult, especially given the low staff-to-prisoner ratio which has resulted from cuts to the service. So authorities will be likely to try to cut supply of tobacco to the prisons. But as the losing battle they have fought against synthetic cannabis drugs Spice and Black Mamba have shown, that is easier said than done.

While the Prison Officers Association's leadership has "cautiously" welcomed the smoke-free policy, the rank-and-file are thought to be less comfortable.

"There's no chance – they would go totally against it," Gedge says. "They're understaffed and can you think of the problems they're going to have when they ban it? There'll be fighting. I've seen people on the outside who stopped smoking and they're like bears with sore heads. Officers have it hard enough as it is. Why would they want more put on them?"

There is an obvious solution, albeit one which would require significant administrative problem-solving: create smoke-free wings for the minority of prisoners who don't smoke. It’s not beyond authorities' ability to do so. Schemes have previously been set up for drug-free wings intended to reward prisoners who sign up for regular testing. Checking for smoking would be less complex than that.

Such plans would be opposed by anti-smoking groups on the basis that it would not protect prison officers from second-hand smoke. But it would remove the risk of violent disorder – a threat anti-smoking groups have been keen to play down but which experts and insiders say is a real and present danger.

The anti-smoking groups have the law on their side, however. The ruling against the Ministry of Justice suggests non-smoking wings would require some sort of change in the law, probably through statutory instrument. The government seems intent on giving up and simply trying to ban smoking across the prison state. If the Australian example is anything to go by, that could have explosive results.