My Time in Jail Told Me That Banning Smoking Will See UK Prisons Go Up in Flames

The government is going to make 60,000 or so fed-up prisoners stop smoking. What could possibly go wrong?

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30 September 2015, 1:40pm

"Hangry" is a portmanteau used to describe people when they're so hungry that they become indiscriminately angry. I wonder if there's a term to describe 60,000 of Britain's most dejected individuals enduring nicotine withdrawal en-mass? Cold-turkgeddon?

Hang on, I know, I think the word is "riot".

80 percent of the prison population smokes compared to 20 percent of the free population, but the government has just announced that it's going to completely ban smoking in our prisons.

Having grown up in a Golden Virginia pea souper with my parents, aunties and uncles all smoking a pack a day, part of my teenage rebellion was to never take a puff on a cigarette. When I went to prison I asked not to bunk up with smokers but these reasonable requests fell on deaf ears.

My first cellmate was a homeless guy from Vauxhall. He'd sit there smoking fags when he had money, and tea leaves wrapped in bible pages when he didn't, recounting intense personal stories of legendary heroin addicts he'd seen on the streets over the years in London.

My second cellmate was a grumpy old Kentish bank robber who'd sit on the bottom of our bunk bed puffing away, cheering on CrimewatchUK escapees while I would be wheezing on the top deck.

Smoking is such an integral part of the prison experience. A school friend told me that he had paved his pleura with tar simply to pass time while waiting for the bus. Well, inmates do the same on a grand scale – sitting there twiddling their thumbs rolling up "burn" for years, waiting for the prison gates to clank open.

In prison, cigarettes are time-wasting, they're social, they're a kind of bookend to each uneventful chapter of the day. They're also the currency of choice for a world without cash – everyone knows you're balling when you have a whole shoebox of baccy under your bed. You can trade a couple fags with a kitchen worker for a bit of black pepper, maybe a pouch of Amber Leaf for a lump of hash, heroin, or whatever tickles your fancy. After all it's "easier to get drugs than a bar of soap" in some jails according to the HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

In terms of the prison economy, the imminent smoking ban is going to be about as tumultuous as a Grexit. Top shotters will be rushing to rid their shoebox stash and everyone will be clammering for the new Drachma: cans of tuna.

It's interesting that smoking hasn't yet been banned behind bars. In a cold, legal fashion it aptly illustrates the situational overlap that prison is – a workplace for the prison officers but also a home to the 80,000+ demi-citizens imprisoned.

The Prison Officers' Association (POA) has long been pushing for the 2007 Health Act to be extended to prisons – one study found that prison staff have the same levels of cotinine in their bloodstream as bar staff pre-ban.

The prison service's operating body – the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) – on the other hand, has been persisting with a dubious interpretation of the act. It's been bouncing off the padded walls of the Ministry of Justice, freaking out that banning smoking will be the final straw for an under resourced, angry, overcrowded and overwrought prison population. That's not surprising, having seen a top security Australian prison go up in smoke after their government tried a similar move.

But now a single case about passive smoke inhalation brought by convicted paedophile and rapist Paul Black has set the ciggy sundown in motion. The Royal Court of Appeals has told the government that the stubbing hour is nigh.

The prison population hates paedophiles almost as much as they love cigarettes – I imagine there's a reward of a whole tonne of Golden Virginia for the first lag to give him throw a kettle of boiling water mixed with sugar in his face – a face-melting treatment that gets reserved for people the inmates regard as pariahs.

The author hanging out in Wandsworth prison

Some prisoners argue that smoking is a human right in a world where they have very few, and I see where they're coming from. The right to fair trial is being taken from many people because of cuts to legal aid; I was denied access to books with a political tangent so I'm not sure what that says about free thought; innocent until proven guilty is a supposed foundation of our society but it's categorically not the case any more – friends of mine have been on bail for four years with restrictions such as not being able to leave the country, not being able to contact friends and family, having electronic ankle bracelet curfews – and then they've been found not guilty after all.

But slowly killing yourself at the expense of the NHS whilst funding some of the worst multinationals in the world as a sanctified human right? I'm not sure it's up there with the rest of them.

Either way this whole fags-or-no-fags thing is a bit of a distraction – there are so many more pressing issues about our destructive prison system and how its population has doubled under the direction of various "tough on crime" Thatcher tribute acts between 2002 and 2012. However, the smoking problem does serve to be emblematic of the wider problems with our system.

Imagine you have the worst people in society (and a whole lot more who are perfectly OK and just shouldn't be in prison) as a captive audience. Now which of the following would you do?:

A) Stuff them with education, help them sort out their behavioural issues, and get the junkies clean.

B) Cut the education departments, lock them up 23 hours a day with a television and very little contact with their families, and have a system that's so awash with drugs that even clean people come out with a heroin habit.

We've currently got the latter and it's a disaster. The government needs to give people who go to prison an MOT and encouraging quitting smoking is definitely a part of this. Much like with bad behaviour bad behaviour, heroin addiction and lack of education, prisoners need a benevolent hand to get back on their good foot and prepare for reentry to the straight and narrow.

The combo of patches, pills and hypnotism all sounds a bit Stonehenge, but it's soft withdrawal that prisoners need or it's all going to go up in flames.

@HMPSurvival

Carl Cattermole is the author of a free, funny, short and highly recommended guide for British prisons – HMP: A Survival Guide. "Essential reading for both expectant inmates and law-abiding citizens" – Will Self

VICE interviewed Carl on the publication of both the first and second editions of the guide.