General Secretary

February 2016 | 02.02.2016

Protecting Members' Health




The issues that face the POA membership in 2016 will just be as challenging as the ones we have tackled in previous years. The POA was mandated by Conference in the past to achieve a position where our prisons were smoke free. This is in order to protect our members from the effects of secondary smoking where the evidence was clear that passive smoking damages the long-term health of those that are exposed to it.

Clear medical evidence led to the UK Government, under the Health Act 2006, to implement a smoking ban in all public places in England and Wales in 2007, Scotland implemented it in 2006. Prisons had partial exemptions and Prison Service Instruction 9/2007 was brought in to protect staff from the health effects of secondary smoking. The POA did not believe that the Prison Service Instruction was effective and mounted a long, hard campaign to protect our members’ health and safety, which was endorsed by Conference. Events have now moved on and the Prison Service has announced that it is embarking on the plan for smoke free prisons. However, it has not identified a timetable, leaving staff and prisoners still exposed to the harmful effects of smoking.

Polluted prisons

Prisons are places where people live and work. Prisoners and staff have as much right as the general population to be protected from toxic tobacco smoke in their home and workplace. There are various reasons for making prisons smoke free, which include:

  • The need to protect staff and prisoners from the effects of second-hand smoke;
  • The need to improve prisoner health;
  • To reduce the cost to the NHS;
  • To reduce the risk of fi res; and
  • To reduce the taking of drugs and indeed, new psychoactive substances.

Air quality measurements undertaken in 2007/8 concluded: “There seems little doubt that allowing a continuation of smoking behaviours in prison settings does expose staff and prisoners to unhealthy levels of particulate contamination.” NOMS then commissioned a more detailed air quality assessment in 2014/15, which confirmed the original finding. For example, a study of the air quality in four English prisons found that levels of particulate pollution in smoking areas of prisons were extremely high, with mean levels during the day that far exceeded World Health Organisation long-term mean and short-term maximum air quality guidance limits. The authors concluded: “Smoking in prisons represents a significant health hazard to staff and indeed prisoners.”

The evidence is crystal clear and the POA believes that NOMS has a responsibility to set a clear timetable for a smoking ban in all prisons in England and Wales. At present, they have not and that is why the Union sent a pre-action protocol letter prior to Christmas as part of a Judicial Review process. At the time of writing this article, discussions are ongoing on this issue to see if agreement can be reached without reverting to law. Whatever the conclusion, I firmly believe that this campaign by the POA and the decisions of Conference has placed our health and safety firmly on the agenda. If they can have a smoke free environment in our secure hospitals, and prisons in the Isle of Man, Guernsey, most states in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia then they should implement one in our prisons without undue delay and with a set timetable that holds the confidence of the POA.

New Psychoactive Substances

Our prisons are awash with New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), and it is creating an uncertain environment in the workplace. This issue is not new, but has been around for several years. I have been on record as stating that NOMS and indeed Government officials have been slow to recognise the dangers that are posed to both prisoners and staff. They seem more preoccupied in dealing with efficiency savings and closing prisons, rather than dealing with basic issues of prison life. How many more times does this Union have to say our prisons have become unsafe because of staff cuts?

NPS harm the lives of prisoners. The outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons has identified the realities of NPS in a hard hitting, thematic review, which was released before Christmas. The POA has been active with the media in this area. Prison officers and other related grades have been taken to hospital suffering from the effects of breathing in and being exposed to Spice and Mamba. Prisoners have been hospitalised, some have had to be resuscitated by paramedics, and unfortunately, prisoners have died as a direct consequence of taking these synthetic substances. It is a real danger and needs to be addressed extremely quickly.

Health education

A smoking ban may assist in that process but I am not naïve enough to believe it will totally eradicate drugs coming into our prisons. Drugs are an evil in society and become even more dangerous in prisons where violent acts prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff are on the increase. Surely, there needs to be more education on drugs in our schools and prisons to stop the misery, not just in society, but also in our jails. The health of prisoners and staff is essential. It must follow that educating prisoners on their health and wellbeing is paramount to safety in our prisons.

I have never understood why NOMS appears to encourage prisoners to smoke. Their own evidence suggests that over 80 percent of prisoners smoke in both the male and female estate. That is not representative of our communities outside prison. Giving individuals tobacco whether they smoke or not as soon as they come into prison is ridiculous and contributes in a roundabout way to the violence in our prisons. Tobacco is a currency in prisons as we all know and some terrible acts of violence have taken place when individuals cannot pay back their debts. It is now time to eradicate tobacco and drugs in our prisons, after all the primary function of prisons after punishment by the courts is to rehabilitate offenders and help them to lead law-abiding lives.

The challenge of 2016 is therefore, for NOMS and Government to make our prisons smoke free and reduce violence and drugs within the estate. The POA will always assist in that progress to ensure that our members (and indeed prisoners) live and work in a healthier and less violent place. In my view, it is time to go back to basics.


Steve Gillan
POA General Secretary