Smoking in prisons: a human right or luxury health hazard?
Ban on smoking in prisons across England and Wales prompts warning that inmates could riot
A DECISION to ban smoking in jails across England and Wales has been described as a breach of human rights amid fears that it could spark riots.
Currently, inmates are allowed to smoke in their own cells and in some prison exercise yards but a total ban on smoking will be trialled in the south west next spring followed by a roll-out across all jails.
Richard Ford, home correspondent for The Times, warns that the ban could spark riots. "It has the potential to destabilise prisons, where being able to enjoy a cigarette helps prisoners through the boredom of their sentences," he says. "About 80 per cent of the 84,300 inmates smoke and tobacco is a valuable currency that is traded on the wings."
The rule change comes amid fears that the Prison Service could face compensation claims from prison officers who say they are victims of passive smoking.
Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, has welcomed the move to have smoke-free prisons for his members but admits that introducing the ban will be difficult. "There is no pretending otherwise.
It could cause disturbances," he says. But he points out that it has been successful in Canada and in young offender institutions in England and Wales.
Andrew Neilson, from campaign charity The Howard League for Penal Reform, thinks a ban would be difficult to enforce when prisons are already going through "unprecedented" cuts to their budgets and staff resources.
"There may well be good intentions behind this policy proposal," he told BBC News. "But it will undoubtedly put a lot of pressure on jails which are already pretty stretched."
He added that there could be a short-term damaging effect on the mental health of prisoners "who are often very distressed".
On Radio 4's Today programme, John Humphrys said it could be a "brilliant" plan. "The idea that you can't smoke if you're a heavy smoker - that's a real deterrent to doing something that will land you in jail isn't it?"
But his guests disagreed. Ben Gunn, who spent 32 years in prison, said: "By and large, criminality isn't a rational, calculated choice, it's desperate people doing desperate acts."
Gunn - a self-confessed "50-a-day man" - describes it as a "purely vindictive, petty, small-minded policy". The only positive, he says, is that it might incense prisoners into thinking more politically - for example, forming a prisoners' union and having a greater say in penal reform.
Mark Johnson, founder of ex-offenders charity User Voice, told Humphrys that "smoking is a human right" and said plans for a total ban were "wrong".
But Sarah Andrews, a UKIP member from Worcestershire, took to Twitter to disagree. "Smoking is not a given right. Maybe knowing prison is such a tough place it will deter more," she wrote. "Prison is a punishment. Absolutely NO luxuries should be allowed." ·