Smoking in Prisons


Banning smoking in prisons is a deliberate torment of people who have already lost everything. It is the bullying of people who are totally in government control, but it is seen as an easy political statement of being seen to be tough and increasing the punishment of imprisonment.


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Prisoner’s Plea


Almost every prisoner smokes and their cell is their home. This is the one pleasure that prisoners control and is legally available in the general community. To remove that just adds tension and further damage to being isolated, bored and feeling hopeless. It makes our community outside more dangerous by stirring unstable people who are released in their hundreds every day – over sixty thousand every year. Administrators admit that it isn’t a health issue as all revert to smoking upon release. Positive influences and smart management are necessary to improve the social health and safety of our community and to justify the $100,000 a year per prisoner. This is the opposite.

Corrective services NSW is planning to ban smoking in prisons under laws commencing in August 2015. In Victoria it has begun. In the stressful and tense environment of a prison, inmates have very few opportunities to exercise the right to choose. As 80% of prisoners smoke, tobacco plays a central part in the prison culture. It is often used as an outlet for stress, as a social activity between inmates and as a form of comfort and relief.

Studies of existing prison smoking bans have revealed that in some institutions up to 93% of prisoners continue to smoke despite existing bans. While the detrimental health effects of smoking are widely known and a key factor behind the ban, extensive research has shown that we simply cannot prevent people from smoking unless they are motivated to quit. Steve Kisely from Griffith University Medical School, one of the world’s leading researchers in public health, is adamant that bans do not work. He affirms that “meaningful change can only occur when the patient has moved through the pre-contemplative, contemplative and planning stages through to the action stage”. As tobacco is a vital part of prison culture, it will always find a way to get into the correctional system and by not encouraging people to quit in a supportive manner, no positive motivation is fostered and tobacco use will continue.

The issue of passive second hand smoke is a key factor influencing the changes proposed to smoking in prisons. As the Australian Cancer Council notes, “second-hand smoke exposure causes serious illness and death in non-smokers”. In 2012-13, Lithgow Correction Centre engaged in a trial process for banning smoking in all common areas of the prison. In doing so, non-smoking prisoners were not directly exposed to cigarette smoke. The ban was seen as effective and a respectful way of working with prisoners to ensure there weren’t any additional tensions in a very tense area. However, the current proposal to ban all smoking in prisons is inhumane, counterproductive and frankly unnecessary when there are numerous other alternatives that would achieve the desired effect without causing harm to the inmates. Allowing smoking in outdoor areas, or establishing a designated smoking area within public spaces of the prison are just a few examples of the range of options available to Corrective Services. 

Furthermore, prison unions have observed a spike in prison assaults, mass unrest, and suicide attempts associated with smoking bans. In 1997, the Woodford Correctional Centre in Queensland was opened with a smoking ban. Three weeks later, riots occurred where prisoners attempted to burn down the structure. After investigating the reasons behind the riots, a government inquiry found the ban on smoking to be a large contributing factor to the unrest. Other studies have uncovered concerning stories from smoke-free prisons overseas. In February 2008, 70 inmates in a Quebec prison set fires inside their cells to protest a ban on smoking at the facility. Furthermore, according to addiction expert Dr. Alex Wodak of St Vincent Hospital, smoking bans only inspire the creation of black-markets, intimidation, and smuggling by correctional staff thus causing further tensions within the correctional system.

Justice Action firmly believes that a smoking ban in prisons will cause agitation, trauma and frustration amongst inmates, and will ultimately cause severe damage to both people and property. As smoking is still permitted amongst the rest of Australian society it is cruel and unfair to implement such a ban on the prison population, where smoking culture remains a large part of prison life. The decision stands as a symptom of the disrespect that authorities have for those under their control. In the April 2015 Inspector of Custodial Services report, the fact that “Inmates and staff in NSW correctional centres are under significant stress, and …that even small additional pressures can make the difference between conditions that are uncomfortable and those that are intolerable… will need to be acknowledged when smoking in correctional centres is banned from August 2015”.

Instead, with creative management and goodwill, respectful compromises could be reached. There are a number of other options available to Corrective Services including designated smoking areas, which will resolve the issue of other prisoners and guards being subjected to second hand smoke. Only through working with prisoners can positive changes occur. This attempt at a ban provides an excellent chance to examine government rehabilitation policies generally and see why they have failed so comprehensively. The easy top down style using force always fails. There is time to talk. Many prisoners want to quit smoking and crime. Let’s not deny them the chance through counterproductive and ineffective force.

For more details, see Justice Action’s analysis paper

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