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| 22.01.2013

The Times: Plan to ban smoking postponed

Richard Ford Home Correspondent.

A plan to ban smoking in a number of jails has been postponed amid fears that it would provoke disturbances.

Prison managers had hoped that the pilot project would lead to all jails in England and Wales being smoke-free within 12 months. But now the planned ban at Exeter prison, which holds 500 inmates, and at other selected jails has been shelved.

For tens of thousands of prisoners, lighting up a cigarette helps them through the boredom.

The Times understands that it remains the aim of senior officials to introduce a complete smoking ban in every jail on for “health and safety” reasons. However, officials fear that it is too risky to introduce a ban at a time when a review of the prisoners’ privileges scheme could also lead to televisions being removed from some inmates’ cells. The system is already facing upheaval with the closure of seven jails by the end of March.

The three-month trial ban was due to start in March. “All of a sudden, the pilot has been stopped,” a source said. “They are afraid that with prison closures, the review of the incentives and earnings scheme and the threat to remove Sky television from some jails, a pilot smoking ban would be the last straw.”

Smoking in prisons has been restricted since the general ban on smoking in enclosed public places came into force in 2007, but inmates are allowed to smoke in their own cell because it has been designated “their permanent or temporary home”.

Prisoners are banned from smoking in workshops, education classes and on the wings but some can light up when outdoors in the exercise yard.

Allowing inmates to smoke in their cells caused concern that the Prison Service could face compensation claims from officers claiming to be victims of passive smoking. Officers are now advised to check whether an inmate is smoking before they enter a cell.

A study carried out after the new rules came into force in 2007 found that in one prison officers were exposed to passive smoking levels similar to those experienced by pub workers.

An estimated 80 per cent of male prisoners smoke and any attempt to introduce a ban is fraught with the risk that it could lead to disorder. A ban would also have to take into account the role that cigarettes and tobacco play as a “currency” between inmates.

Mark Leech, a former prisoner, warned that a ban could threaten the stability of the prison system. “Smoking is a huge comfort to many prisoners,” he said. “Banning it could lead to a loss of control.”

Joe Simpson, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, said that he was disappointed but understood why the Prison Service had postponed the trial ban.

“We have been asking for this since the smoking ban came into force because we fear our members are going to suffer,” he said. “We fear that when our members should be enjoying retirement they will be suffering from smoking-related disease because they have worked in a smoke environment.”

He said that the association had been told that Ministry of Justice officials remained committed to prisons in England and Wales being smoke-free.

Phil Wheatley, when he was director-general of the Prison Service, warned MPs in 2005 that a ban could backfire. “You don’t have a lot going for you in prison,” he said. “You are deprived of most things you might ordinarily enjoy ... To take yet another thing away will not be wildly popular with a group who are not always charming and pleasant in their behaviour.”

He added: “I would expect to find there was an increase in incidents of assaults on staff. We do need to make sure that we do not cause significant problems for disturbed people arriving with us with already a multitude of problems.”