Britain’s prison population – now some 84,000-strong – may soon have to give up one of the few pleasures they enjoy in stir, the right to smoke cigarettes.
British media reported that the country’s Prison Service may consider a ban on smoking in all areas of jails in England and Wales (Scotland’s prisons fall under a different jurisdiction), similar to the 2007 prohibition of tobacco imposed upon pubs, restaurants, workplaces and other enclosed public venues.
At present, prisoners can light up only in the confines of their cells, not in the exercise yards or other ”open” areas.
The measure was reportedly considered after prison staff and non-smoking inmates threatened to file lawsuits over the harmful effects of passive smoking.
Prison officials are expected to commence a pilot program next year – starting with jails in southwestern England, including Exeter and Eastwood Park Women's jail, according to The Times -- with a full ban expected by the year 2015. Inmates who smoke will be provided with a nicotine patch to satisfy their appetites for smokes.
But the plan has many critics scratching their heads – for one thing, with an estimated 80 percent of inmates smokers, the financial cost of providing patches would be high. In addition, cigarettes (like drugs) are used as a form of currency in prisons, while others worry that a ban on tobacco will only increase prisoners’ already high stress levels, which could trigger violence snd even riots.
“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,” said Andrew Neilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform, according to BBC.
"Prisons are going through unprecedented budget cuts, prison resources, staff resources have [already] been cut.”
Mark Johnson, a former inmate who is now with a charity group called User Voice, said the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice should focus on more important priorities like rehabilitation, adding that smoking is a “human right.”
"We've got a serious problem the way we have the rates of re-offending, and they sort of come up with... a PR line about something as minute as smoking in cells,” he told BBC.
"We work in a number of prisons around the country and already in communal spaces smoking's banned. The only place that you can smoke is actually in your cell."
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, called the proposal “very risky,” according to Sky News.
"You’re putting extra pressure on a system that's already under pressure," she said, citing that smoking is a great stress-reliever for many inmates.
"If the substitute for smoking were more time with staff, more time outside of your cell, more purposeful activity, more skills-training [then] that would be a very different picture.”
Even Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, which strongly advocates for a tobacco ban, admitted the ban will be hard to enforce.
'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,” he told the Times of London.
“We welcome this move. It is our policy to have smoke-free prisons for our members. We will work with the [Justice] Ministry to make sure it works effectively.”
Many commenters on British news websites blasted the proposed ban – either as unnecessary or potentially dangerous.
“Bilbo Baggins” from Brighton called the measure “ridiculous.”
“The smoking ban killed pubs and a vast income for the country. Prisoners have no choice about where to live and I think there will be violent trouble over this. Please, can we get away from Puritanism? It does not work,” he wrote to the Daily Mail.
“Tim” from Birmingham declared: “After this is introduced, it might not be too long before the actual prisons start smoking! A bad idea if you are in lock-down with no outside access.”
However, a reader on BBC endorsed the ban.
“Prison is supposed to be a punishment, not a holiday camp,” he or she wrote. “Take their cigarettes away. It's also supposed to be somewhere you can reform yourself. And that includes your health. It's not fair [to] the prison guards either.”
For the record, according to a report in USA Today, half of the 50 states of the US ban smoking in prisons, including tobacco-manufacturing states like Virginia and North Carolina.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.