Inside Time Article

Burn Baby Burn

Why smoking bans in prisons always go up in smoke

The July introduction of smoking bans in prisons triggered a prison riot of historical scale and intensity in the Australian state of Victoria. Twelve hours before the ban commenced, outraged prisoners lit fires and caused $10 million worth of damage to prison property. Authorities retaliated with tear gas and firearms in a bid to control the chaos.  Corrections Victoria chief Jan Shuard said that a violent inmate reaction was unexpected.  But did the riot really come as a shock to authorities?


A recent investigation into prison overcrowding by the New South Wales Inspector of Custodial Services anticipated growing unrest in prisons. The report highlighted the danger of exposing already uncomfortable inmates to the extra stress of smoking bans. The report added that authorities should not be surprised by prisoner non-compliance and riots.  Banning smoking is degrading to prisoners. It causes resentment and increasing the likelihood of their re-offending upon release.

As of 10th August, smoking bans will be enforced in prisons in the state of New South Wales. Parties such as the Prison Officers’ Union have voiced concern that this will spark riots and protests in a similar vein to the Victorian experience.  Despite this, Corrective Services NSW does not seem willing to negotiate or reconsider the bans.

Corrections Victoria justified its ban on the grounds that ‘smoke free prisons provide a healthier and safer workplace for everybody, a safer prison system and a better quality of life for people who quit smoking.’The problem with such a narrow focus on the health and occupational health effects of smoking is the blindsiding of other live issues. Certainly, in the state of Queensland, assaults on prison officers have doubled since the introduction of a total smoking ban.

The loss of stress relief adds to the trauma and mental health stress of those living in tense environments. In already overcrowded facilities, the loss of human choice ushers in a level of punishment beyond the original sentence being served. Indeed, smoking bans work to deny a central piece of prison culture. In the UK, an estimated 85% of prisoners describe themselves as smokers. A similar 84% of Australian inmates identify as such. Prisoners spend $28 of their $30 wages on tobacco.  Everybody knows that smoking has positive effects on the mental and emotional health of prisoners. Controlling the personal pleasure of prisoners lowers violence rates and maintains safe prisons. Smoking provides relief from the boredom and stress that defines time inside. It is a social activity that can bridge differences and unify prisoners.  It is one of the few available avenues of self-determination and responsibility. Smoking has a role as a currency, being used by inmates to trade varied items and favours.  It is one of the few things that inmates can bring inside, granting them continuity and comfort.

According to addiction expert Dr Alex Wodak of St Vincent Hospital in Sydney, Australia, banning cigarettes leads to the creation of black markets, intimidation and smuggling by correctional staff. Prisoners turn to harder drugs and violence as substitutes. Given its importance and nature, smoking should not be banned. It is unjust and amounts to the deliberate torment of people who have already lost everything.

In any case, there is clear evidence that bans do not work. Steve Kisely from Griffith University Medical School affirms that people only quit smoking in the long-term because they want and intend to do so. Studies show that where inmates are forced to give up smoking, almost all resume the habit immediately upon release. Such findings should not, of course, be used to deny a role for programs that encourage and support inmates in a quest to quit smoking.

Smoking bans jeopardise the possibility of genuine care in prison programs and management. They deny inmates the physical, mental and emotional health rehabilitation to which they are entitled. Balance must be found between respect for smokers and respect for non-smokers. 

There are effective and fair ways to achieve this balance without resorting to bans. For one, smoking could be limited to use in open yards so non-smoking prisoners and staff are not subject to exposure, as was successfully trialled in 2012. Alternatively, e-cigarettes could be introduced to combat nicotine dependence. Research suggests that e-cigarettes have lower toxicity levels than traditional cigarettes. The absence of carbon monoxide also means any second-hand smoke ingested is not as harmful. Justice Action has asked prison authorities to adopt the UK experience with e-cigarettes to avoid the chaos that confounds us all.

Olivia Richards-Hill

Justice Action


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