The stupidity of prison smoking bans

When you think of the principal threats to the health and welfare of prisoners in the UK, what comes to mind? Overcrowding? Severe staff shortages? Last year’s riots? The overwhelming consensus from those in the prison system is that there are simply not enough resources being dedicated to creating a safe and secure environment for prisoners and staff. Given these problems, I imagine that worrying about the effects of smoking tobacco on prisoners will be far down people’s list of concerns.

So it might come as a surprise to discover that England and Wales are beginning plans to make all long-term and high-security prisons completely smoke-free — a goal they want to complete by the end of August. Prisons already have non-smoking communal areas; the new legislation would push these regulations further and prevent prisoners from smoking even in their own cells and in open spaces.

Of course, if prisoners were able to enjoy every freedom they enjoyed in the outside world, then incarceration would make a poor deterrent against criminal behaviour. But forcing prisoners to give up smoking is nonetheless paternalistic and unfair. It’s an unnecessary, and cruel, punishment. It treats inmates like children to be supervised rather than adults who have committed crimes. The ban strips prisoners of one of the few activities they can legally participate in to relieve stress and pass the time. It also creates a new prohibition for already overstretched prison staff to monitor.

The legislation shows a serious lack of prioritisation on the part of the government. It echoes the bizarre report released last year by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which highlighted the ‘urgency [of] controlling tobacco and shisha consumption’ in war-torn Syria. The report urged Syrian health authorities to consider implementing plain packaging for tobacco products. Syria is in the grip of one of the worst wars of modern times, and WHO is going on about plain packs? The smoking issue makes officials lose all sense of perspective.

The proposed prison smoking ban in England and Wales reflects a broader trend in Britain’s approach to prison policy, where effecting petty behavioural change among inmates is prioritised over meaningful reform or even basic welfare. The government needs to appreciate that prison is a unique social environment that cannot be managed in the same way as a normal workplace or public space. Legislation like this is a distraction from far more urgent and complex issues facing inmates and prison staff. The government is right to be concerned about the health of those in prison, but the problem is not secondhand smoke.

Milja Kljajic is a writer based in London.

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