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Smoking ban in prisons will increase risk of rioting and won’t work

22 August 2015 137 views No Comment

Smoking rates are declining in Australia, but not in one community — our prison system. As well as being used for their mood-altering effects, tobacco and other drugs are also widely used as currency in our prisons.

As well as prisoners, other disadvantaged groups are overrepresented among smokers, in particular indigenous people, the mentally ill, and alcohol and drug-dependent people.

While most prisoners already have serious physical and mental health problems, in Australia 85 per cent of prisoners also smoke, even though at least half would like to stop, especially when released into the community.

Prison authorities are rightly concerned about occupational health and safety risks caused by smoking. This applies to the possibility of fires in prison and of non-smoking prison officers suing Corrective Services because they have developed lung cancer through passive smoking.

Actually, in Australia, most prison officers also smoke, probably in similar proportion to inmates.

As most prisoners are incarcerated for only a short sentence, what happens in prisons is still very much a community problem.

So what should be done?

At the very least we should segregate smoking prisoners and officers from those who do not smoke cigarettes.

We also should provide intensive assistance to prisoners who want to stop, while also realising that quit rates will be lower among inmates than the wider community because severe disadvantage, including mental illness and widespread illiteracy, is the norm in prisons.

A significantly smaller prison population would not only save money but help in many other ways.

When he was Britain’s prime minister, Labour’s Tony Blair famously said, “We should be tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime. But like many other political leaders, including our own, when he was in office Blair focused on the former and forgot the latter.

The reality is that less inequality is likely to strengthen our economy and at the same reduce some of our severe health and social problems. Less inequality also would make it easier to lower, across time, the number of our prison inmates.

Dealing with the present situation, we should allow e-cigarettes to be used in prisons, as this would improve the health of those prisoners who smoke and reduce risk for others.

But why should smoking not be banned entirely in prisons?

The fact is that alcohol and drug prohibitions have a terrible record; they rarely succeed and often make a bad problem even worse.

Indeed, there is no evidence that smoking bans in prisons achieve long-term benefits; that is, lower smoking rates among ex-prisoners.

Because of the research-resistant prison environment, it is hard to prove or disprove what happens within our prisons.

However there are some indications that smoking bans have precipitated or contributed to prison riots and fires, including those in Queensland and Victoria.

There are also indications that smoking bans in prisons have led to increased availability of drugs such as heroin. This is because as trade in cigarettes in prisons is such an important currency, when one currency goes, another rep­laces it.

Although it would be best if all prisoners stopped smoking immediately, that unfortunately is not achievable.

But reducing smoking in prisons will have many benefits.

Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, says such reductions “would mean that more inmates being released could afford to pay for somewhere to live without stealing or committing other crime to fund their accommodation in the community. Another possible benefit, he says, may be “fewer prisoners on their release relapsing to heroin and other drugs.

Given all these factors, allowing e-cigarettes in prisons would be a useful harm reduction compromise. It would mean that inmates who continued to use nicotine would cause significantly less harm to themselves and to others.

Compared with many other OECD countries, Australia has a very high incarceration rate. In terms of the percentage of the population imprisoned, Australia is ahead of all western European countries, with the exception of Spain and Britain.

Smoking is still a major problem in our jails and in the wider community as well.

In fact, smoking remains the most significant cause of preventable illness and premature death in Australia.

Moreover, it is an enormous cost to the Australian economy — which in a reputable study a decade ago was estimated to be about $31.5 billion a year.

While the main focus should remain on reducing smoking in the wider community, the situation in our prisons should not be ignored. But banning smoking in prisons will not work. Indeed, it would increase the risk of jail riots and of fires.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 37 books, including his memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, which is available as an e-book and a talking book from Vision Australia.

The Weekend Australian, August 22-23, 2015, Inquirer, p 26.

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