We Asked Prisoners What They Think of the Prison Smoking Ban
"Try and come down hard on me and I'll terrorise the screws all day and all night."
A man – who is not a prisoner – smoking. Photo: Marius Benta, via
Last week, prisoners at HMP Haverigg were involved in a nine-hour riot as an initially peaceful protest over the newly enforced smoking ban at their prison turned violent. The disturbance, which began at 7PM and went on until 4AM, resulted in trashed pool tables, flooded cells and televisions being thrown at anti-riot units called in to deal with the trouble.
A potential smoking ban has been spoken about by prisoners for as long as I have been teaching in prisons, but until recently inmates have viewed it as an abstract, distant and wholly unlikely threat. With the ban being rolled out at more and more prisons, I asked members of my class how they felt now that the potential nightmare was about to become a reality.
Jamie, 30, is waiting to be sentenced for a combined total of 15 burglaries. This will be his fourth, and longest, custodial sentence since his first spell behind bars as a teenager for beating up his maths teacher. Jamie has smoked every day since he was 13, so how will he cope inside when the smoking ban is brought into effect?
"I was off my fucking nut on valium for every single one of those break-ins. I've got an addictive personality. Fags are no different – there'll be hell to pay," he says. "It's happening already; every prison they try it in is kicking off. Just wait till they try it in the Class A [prisons] instead of all the soft jails. Carnage, bro!"
I also ask Jamie whether he would be willing to risk loss of prison privileges, and even additional time, in order to continue smoking throughout his sentence. "Yeah, standard. If I'm in here for five years, I'll risk the odd extra few days here and there if it means I can have a smoke every night before bed. Let me have a couple of smokes a day and you won't hear a peep out of me for my sentence. Try and come down hard on me and I'll terrorise the screws all day and all night."
FUCK THIS SMELL
Terry, 28, had never been inside prior to his conviction for assaulting a police officer, who, he says, racially abused him. He has one month left of his sentence and as a fellow non-smoker I'm interested to hear his thoughts on the ban.
"Oh mate, it's the smell. No offence to anyone, yeah, but the stench on man's fingers, on their clothes, is absolutely vile. It's one thing on road, but all cramped up in here it's too much. First week I was heaving from it. Dirty, dirty shit, man."
I ask Terry whether, given his disdain for the smell – which, from my own experience in prison, I can confirm is often overwhelmingly potent – he is in favour of the ban.
"Don't get me wrong, yeah, I hate everything about smoking, but you ban it and you're making problems you don't need. Suddenly burn is on a level with weed or brown, except way more customers. You'll have higher prices, more people getting in debt, more bullying, more violence, and over what? Something that isn't even illegal. I'm out soon and not coming back, but it just seems like another punishment that won't do anything positive. But seriously, yeah, fuck this smell all day."
Gary, 46, is serving six weeks for breaking the terms of a restraining order against an ex-partner; prior to this, however, he served a nine-year sentence for armed robbery. I ask him whether he has any concerns about the ban, and what it could mean for prisoners on longer sentences.
"You've got your violence that'll happen at the start, these riots, that'll die down. You've got your violence that'll come with making baccy contraband – that'll become a way of life. But you've also got to deal with screws – grumpy sods, most of them, at the best of times. The more stressed they get, the more shit they have to deal with. You'll find the decent ones getting less patient and the rotten ones will be looking for any excuse to twist someone up. On top of that, they won't be able to sneak a fag either [the smoking ban extends to all employees on prison grounds]. That's not me having any sympathy with them; they can fuck off home at the end of the day. I'm just not in favour of anything that pisses them off."
Gary tells the group a bit about his nine-year stretch, how he went through periods of extreme mental pressure and depression. I ask whether not being able to smoke would have made things worse.
"For me, not much difference. I can take it or leave it, always have. But I was twoed up with lifers during that time, and for them it was as much a part of their routine as having a cuppa in the morning. Just a little bit of something nice, bit of relaxation. For them, taking away smoking is just another unnecessary cruelty. I'm not one for the PC human rights brigade, but it's not humane."
Graeme, 23, has pleaded not guilty in a large scale Class A drug conspiracy. Several other co-defendants have already submitted a guilty plea, meaning that should Graeme be found guilty he can expect the maximum sentence possible.
Graeme goes into considerable detail as to how he would run a tobacco operation inside and, much to the amusement of the group, claims that he will sell rollups to the officers and let them smoke in his cell.
"One thing that twists my head, though, is if they say they're bringing this in for people's health," Graeme says, "Why the fuck don't they seem to be bothered about serving up pure grot munch, beds that twist your back up, and fucking making you wait months to get your meds sorted?"
The rest of the group finds Graeme's tobacco speak-easy idea somewhat fanciful, but they all agree he has a point when it comes to the selective approach to prisoner health and wellbeing that the smoking ban reveals. This is echoed by Glyn Travis of the Prison Officers Association, who feels that the ban "is being rushed into prisons [which are] already overcrowded and volatile. It is a lethal cocktail and could lead to more violence and riots."
"They're taking things away from us, but not giving anything back in return," Gary says. "You can get close to your limit on a long stretch, and you never know what could push someone over the edge. Nasty business for the sake of a bit of baccy."
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