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Friday, September 20, 2013

Prisons, porridge and passive smoking.

Sometimes when you hear a proposal, you just know instinctively that it won't work. A hornets-nest disturbed. Such is the case with the Prison Service's idea that prisons should become smoking-free places. A pilot in 2014 leading to a national programme is prisons from 2015.

Arguments about passive smoking and the rights of non-smokers in public places may carry legitimate weight in mainstream society but with prisons, there are particular issues and contexts which need careful addressing. Prisons are boring places and time passes slowly. Comforters take on a disproportionate status. Drugs abound and if these cannot be controlled what chance the nicotine cousin? Relations between warders and inmates work through consensual conventions, making life a bit easier for everyone. These are likely to be disturbed when a traffic warden view of implementing rules is introduced. Tobacco is a porridge currency, so will its value be inflated when it is banned? If it is successfully banned what other medium of exchange will take its place? By removing an environmental pollutant, unintended consequences may emerge even more difficult to police. If 80% of prisoners do smoke, then weaning them off the drug will be a challenge. Some "cold-turkey" symptoms could just make the behaviour of inmates more problematic. It would be interesting know how many warders smoke. Most of us never see the insides of a prison, so the proposals will be irrelevant to our experience and we will have a marginal interest. Implementing a ban will bring a cost. Better that scarce resources were directed to education and rehabilitation, so that our prison population was not just a revolving door of recidivism.

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