Date of writing: 28/09/2015
One of the things that might strike a member of the public on entering a prison wing for the first time is something that they may have imagined to be a thing of the past: the lingering miasma of tobacco smoke. Since the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces some eight years ago, to see someone light up indoors seems to me anachronistic and faintly repellent, yet an exception was made for prisoners. Officially, a prisoner may now only smoke in his cell with the door closed, and no non-smoker will be made to share a cell with someone who smokes. However, in practice the closed-door rule seems to be very lightly enforced. Often an inmate can be seen lighting up in his doorway, or even wandering across the landings and through the corridors with a skinny roll-up cupped surreptitiously in a tar-stained hand. Even when the rule is obeyed, a cell door is far from airtight.
Recent statistics indicate that 80% of the UK prison population is addicted to nicotine. With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that at the weekends in HMP Anonymous, the smoke from a hundred bored prisoners clouded the full four-storey height of the wing, to be picked out in the shafts of sunlight coming through the roof vents. It would even cling stubbornly to my ill-fitting prison tracksuit, bringing to mind my student days of bar work and ashtray-emptying, but without the small compensation of good beer and traditional jazz. Here at HMP Arbitrary, the corridor-based accommodation thankfully limits my exposure to a fraction of that, but the problem remains, nonetheless.
One of the things most people seem to know about prison is that tobacco is used as currency. Debts are made and paid in half-ounces of ‘burn’, and though trading is officially forbidden, the weekly canteen delivery is followed by a flurry of exchanges and paybacks. Prescription medications are routinely swapped for pouches of Amber Leaf, and there are even unscrupulous payday loan entrepreneurs who prey on the addictions of the poor and vulnerable for their own tobacco profit. With an ounce (or, more accurately, 25 grams) of good tobacco currently retailing for £8.73, and average wages here being £10.60 a week (yes, you read that right), those who smoke can afford little else.
I’ve recently managed to get myself entangled in something called the Decency Committee – a working group tasked with ensuring fairness in the running of the prison by getting prisoners and senior staff together to talk about a wide range of issues. I’ve yet to discover if this will be just another talking shop or whether anything useful will actually get done, but that’s by the by. For now, I’m grateful to be in the privileged position of occasionally having the ear of a deputy governor, several three-stripe officers, and various heads of department. I’m still not quite sure why this led me to be sat in a monthly staff briefing when normally I’d have been locked in my cell for the afternoon like the rest of the prison; I felt I had somehow sneaked unnoticed into the school staff room, or that I’d unexpectedly got into that middle bit where the ghosts live in Pac Man. Anyway, among the presentation slides was a confirmation that as of the 1st January 2016, this prison will become entirely smoke-free. All prisons must apparently follow this lead at some point next year, but our governor likes to blaze a trail.
Rumours have circulated for some time, but with prison rumours being less reliable than the hurricane predictions of Michael Fish, I was sceptical. But there it was in black and white. (Well, blue and slightly paler blue, but you get the point.) There are those who predict riots, and ill informed rants about ‘human rights’ abound, but I have so far been surprised at how muted the reaction has otherwise been. I suspect there’s a degree of denial going on, and still more rumours are circulating that it will be postponed. In any case, it’s only a matter of time – whatever some might believe. In my opinion, it can’t come too soon.
One of the major benefits I can see of smoke-free prisons is that they present a fantastic way to give thousands of people a chance to quit a damaging addiction in a way that makes relapse very difficult – albeit only for a set period of time. While some may shout that it’s somehow a violation of their rights, this is frankly an absurd idea. An alcoholic who comes to prison will not be supplied with booze – he will be medically managed to dry out. Heroin addicts are not handed syringes and Ziploc bags of their chosen poison, but rather given carefully controlled substitutes that are reduced and eventually removed altogether. Why should any prisoner be allowed to indulge in a drug that not only harms them but is also unpleasant and potentially damaging to others? Especially when the privatised canteen suppliers such as DHL and Aramark are profiting from this gradual self-harm of a frequently poor and disenfranchised section of society.
Regardless of the ban, it seems that the nicotine profits are set to continue, as tobacco supplies are gradually replaced by disposable e-cigarettes. So-called ‘vaping’ leaves me in two minds, because while the health harms seem to be reduced to near zero and the atmospheric issue is near enough eliminated, the potential for addiction remains. Having had the opportunity to examine and indeed try one of these devices – purely in the name of research, of course – I’ve found that they are quite a marvel of engineering and microelectronics. Nonetheless, I envisage a future where the provision of an addictive recreational drug for purchase by prisoners might seem a strange anomaly. But then, what of caffeine? In its propylene-glycol-infused incarnation is nicotine really any worse than coffee? Maybe I could use this as an angle to argue at the next Decency Committee meeting that I should be allowed a weekly ration of Talisker …