By Mark Leech the editor of Converse the national prisoners’ newspaper, and The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales.
The Prison Officers Association have been campaigning for the last five years to have smoking banned in prisons, their members they say have a right to work in a safe and healthy environment and few would disagree with that – and certainly not me.
They have threatened legal action against the Ministry of Justice because their members are forced to endure ‘passive smoking’ – but given that prisoners only smoke in their cells the genuine risk of injury must be absolutely minute and many (me included) feel a great deal of this has been driven by prison staff who DO smoke – and feel angered that while at work they cannot do so while prisoners can light up.
Whatever the influences at work the Ministry of Justice have caved in and decided to implement a smoking ban across the whole of the prison estate – my fear is that the large-scale riots and unrest we risk bringing down on our prisons means prison officers – who will have to deal with it – have probably won a Pyrrhic victory – a victory with such a devastating cost that it is tantamount to defeat.
Look, the health benefits to prisoners and staff of living and working in a non-smoking environment are both obvious and undisputed.
The plan to ban smoking has resulted in fears that prisoners will riot and I agree that is a very real prospect – but it must never be a reason for refusing to do what the evidence shows to be right.
The risk assessment of the policy introduction must result in staff being properly resourced in terms of numbers, training, intelligence and equipment to meet that threat and deal with it in such a way as it minimises harm to others.
It also means that prisoners – and staff who want to stop smoking – should be afforded the full range of nicotine replacement therapy that is available on the NHS.
It must be introduced slowly across the prison estate – rush it and you’ll flip the entire prison system into self-destruct.
With thought and appropriate planning it can be successfully achieved – other prison systems have done it – but alas all the evidence of such things here in the past have shown a consistent failure by the Ministry of Justice to prepare properly for major policy implementation – just look at the absolute shambles we had with IPP sentences – where almost a decade after it was introduced (and two years after it was scrapped) we still have thousands of prisoners trapped in the prison system because of this unfair sentence.
Then we had the laughable and lamentable ‘Intermittent Custody’ – remember that? Where people were supposed to go to prison for the weekend – two prisons were set aside for this but they failed to convince the courts to use the sentence and so two years after they were introduced in 2004, and not a single sentence passed, they were quietly scrapped.
“Then there was End of Custody Licence – with the Secretary of State squeezing prisoners out of the back door by means of executive release – a short-term measure that last almost four years – and not to mention the hundreds of millions of pounds wasted with the first ‘C-Nomis’ debacle – the first joined-up prisons and probation computer system that had to be scrapped and started again from scratch – and my fear is the smoking ban will be no different; but far more dangerous.
Personally I think it’s a policy that is misconceived, ill-thought through and will be a disaster which the Ministry of Justice will come to bitterly regret.
If they do go ahead they must get it right – once they launch this policy they must see it through to what I believe will be the bitterest of endings.
If it goes wrong, people like me will be there to say: ‘I told you so’.