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Burning issue

A disturbance was reported at Birmingham prison last night.

Reports vary. According to The Sun:

Riots erupted at HMP Birmingham yesterday with officials losing control of one prison wing for several hours throughout the evening.

The Mirror went even further: 'We want burn!' Rioting prisoners 'demand tobacco' at Birmingham prison with 'one wing lost' as anti-riot teams prepare to storm jail screamed the headline.

In contrast the Guardian was more subdued, noting simply that:

An unknown number of prisoners refused to return to their cells at the end of Sunday evening at the category B jail, which is run by G4S ...

Unconfirmed reports suggested that prisoners were chanting “we want burn” – slang for tobacco.

The BBC ('Trouble flares at Birmingham Prison') chose not to speculate about the cause of the unrest while The Sun reported that it might have something to do with prisoners 'not having access to TV and a gym'.

Either way, Metro later reported that the 'seven-hour stand-off' had been 'brought to a safe conclusion' (Prison riot ‘over cigarette ban’ finally comes to an end).

Ironically it was only last week that a group of inmates was transferred to Birmingham following trouble at a prison in Cumbria. According to the Daily Mirror:

Prisoners staged a nine-hour riot and caused hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage - after they were banned from smoking.

Inmates smashed sinks, flooded cells and destroyed TVs at the Category C HMP Haverigg as they became the latest prison to be subject to the smoking ban.

Violent behaviour in prisons is nothing new of course but smoking bans aren't helping.

In June 2015, for example, it was reported that prisoners at a remand centre in Melbourne, Australia, had rioted after smoking was prohibited.

Sources confirmed to Guardian Australia the riot was a reaction to the smoking ban being implemented in prisons across the state from Wednesday. It is understood the ban at Ravenhall was introduced on Tuesday.

A review later reported than the riot was caused by a shortage of tobacco, compounded by over-crowding.

Needless to say, predictions of trouble as a result of smoking being outlawed in prisons have been largely ignored.

The most articulate – indeed expert – voice has been that of Alex Cavendish, a former inmate. I've linked to this article before but it's well worth reading because it gives a real insight into the value of tobacco inside jail.

Here's a taste:

... prison canteens make a very healthy profit from the sale of pouches of rolling tobacco, a percentage of which goes to HMPS. Few inmates can afford 'ready made' cigarettes, but up to 80% of the adult population inside are smokers, so DHL – which operates the contract to fulfil prisoners' canteen orders – has a captive and receptive clientele of over 85,000 to service weekly.

Watch any queue of inmates lined up to sign for their clear carrier bags of goodies from the weekly canteen delivery and the vast majority will be collecting their pouches of 'burn'. Many buy nothing else.

Rolling tobacco functions both as the legal stimulant of choice for a majority of prisoners, as well as an important form of internal currency since cash is prohibited inside jails. Most goods and services within prisons are priced in ounces of burn, although tinned tuna and bars of Euro Shopper chocolate are subsidiary forms of loose change behind bars.

According to Cavendish:

There are two main camps when it comes to the question of a prison smoking ban. The most vocal consists of those who cite health and safety in the workplace as the overriding concern. This is the line taken by both the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) and non-smokers – staff and prisoners alike – who object to living and working in smoky atmospheres ...

On the other side of the argument are the vast majority of adult prisoners who do smoke tobacco and a minority of governors and other prison staff who fear that imposing a ban on one of the very few legal pleasures left to inmates will not only flood the prison adjudication system with smoking-related cases, but could also lead to further violence and even riots. Even the normally conservative Prison Governors’ Association has urged caution over the implementation of tobacco bans.

See Prison smoking ban will worsen the crisis behind bars (

Cavendish also wrote an article for Metro in which he highlighted reports of problems in several jails following the introduction of smoking bans. These include prisons in Erlestoke, near Devizes in Wiltshire; Dartmoor; Channings Wood in Devon; and Exeter.

See A smoking ban in UK prisons could lead to months or even years of rioting (Metro).

That list is far from exhaustive. There have also been reports of trouble at Cardiff prison after smoking was banned in 2016.

In March this year a report by the Independent Monitoring Board blamed 'tobacco withdrawal' for a series of incidents in Britain's prisons including assault and vandalism. According to inspectors:

"There is no proof of a direct link with the ban. But the indirect consequences of the increase in ­offences such as damage to property, assaults, possession of unauthorised articles and disobeying lawful orders could be due to stress resulting from tobacco withdrawal.

Some prisoners have a long history of smoking and their ­attempts to continue in the face of the ban lead to further numbers of disciplinary offences."

The report added:

"The smoking ban does appear to also have contributed to an increase in the use of other substances smuggled into the prison and improvised substances.

"The resultant fumes are unpleasant and possibly more toxic than cigarette smoke."

See Prison smoking ban blamed for rise in assaults and vandalism (Daily Mirror).

More recently it's been reported that inmates in Drake Hall Women's Prison in Staffordshire 'went berserk and sat on the roof after a ban was tested there in May'.

I'm sure there are a lot of people who believe it's wrong to give inmates any perks at all. Personally I think we have to take a more pragmatic approach and weigh up the pros and cons.

Final word to Alex Cavendish, quoted by the Telegraph in May:

"This is a triumph of health and safety in the workplace over common sense the the security and good management of prisons.

"Tobacco is an integral part of prison life. As well as being regarded as a treat and helping to alleviate boredom, smoking also acts as a crutch for inmates with a range of more serious issues.

"There are lots of inmates who suffer from drug addiction, anxiety, mental health problems and other associated conditions and smoking can help calm them down. To deny them that at times of great stress could just lead to greater problems."

See High security prisons on alert after telling inmates they must give up smoking by September (Telegraph).

See also: Prison smoking ban – Forest calls for common sense (July 2017).

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Reader Comments (10)

They did it because they knew no one cares about prisoners and any riot, however destructive and harmful, can be brought under control by force. Neither did they care about the harm such a riot might cause to non smoking prisoners because this, as we know, is not about health. It is about forcing easily controlled people to quit in readiness for the year when they will make smoking illegal so that law abiding smokers, pushed into criminality simply because of who they are, can be pushed into their anti smoker prisons if they still refuse to quit when the order comes.

They will stop at nothing no matter how immoral or wrong to ensure their vision of a world without smokers by 2025 is enforced.

Tobacco control and it's stooges are vile.

Monday, September 4, 2017 at 13:37 | Unregistered CommenterPat Nurse

What a nasty country we are in now. Stopping prisoners having tobacco and smoking is extreme bullying. I am disgusted. Why can't we fight back ?

Monday, September 4, 2017 at 16:53 | Unregistered CommenterTimothy Goodacre

This will only get worse, as these guys and gals a lot of them have nothing left to lose. Their smokes were about the only reason their tempers were held to a reasonable level. The powers that be will be judged when the first and possibly following deaths occur. They may be bad people, but they are meant to be learning to re adjust to society, this will not happen whilst they are being tortured by the powers that be

Monday, September 4, 2017 at 20:40 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Kerr

At least two people did die in one of the prison riots in Quebec when they banned smoking. Hasn't stopped the Canadian government at all. We just never see smoking as the cause of prison riots in the news anymore.


Monday, September 4, 2017 at 22:03 | Unregistered CommenterChanah See

I'm not even sure where to start. First the tobacco control goons said there was no evidence that smoking bans in prisons would lead to riots despite numerous examples to the contrary. But of course they lied about the risk of second hand smoke in the first place so what do you expect. They also l;died about plain packs and pub closures. Despite evidence of tobacco control lies the media stays complicit and doesn't even fact check antismoker propaganda. Then when the prison riots become to big to hide, they just keep repeating the same old lies (as they did with second hand smoke, pub closures, and plain packs). The entire tobacco control project is based on lies and the deliberate persecution of smokers.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 1:48 | Unregistered CommenterVinny Gracchus

None of the people who put this ban in place will be anywhere near any of these prisons that's 100% for sure.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 1:59 | Unregistered CommenterTony

Has anybody come up with a proposal to regulate instead of enacting a total ban on smoking? For example, smoking and non-smoking areas or cells. Has this been proposed?

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 5:07 | Unregistered CommenterRoberto

I believe that's the way it used to be, Roberto.

At the time the Health Act 2006 was going through Parliament, Crown Properties like the Houses of Parliament and prisons were thought to be exempt.

Prisoner wins landmark ruling to ban smoking in jail
5 Mar 2015

“Paul Black, who is held at HMP Wymott in Lancashire, says he suffers from a range of health problems made worse by second-hand smoke”
“The judge rejected Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s argument that the 2006 Health Act, which makes smoking a criminal offence in enclosed public places and workplaces, does not “bind the Crown” and does not apply in state prisons.

Mr Justice Singh, sitting in London, declared: “In my judgment it is clear from the terms of the 2006 Act…that the intention of Parliament was indeed that it should apply to all public places and workplaces which fell within its scope, including those for which the Crown is responsible.”

While this has been going through the courts a new study came out in support of the ban.

Second-hand smoke in four English prisons: an air quality monitoring study
12 October 2015

"The concentration of PM2.5 pollution in smoking areas of prisons are extremely high. Smoking in prisons therefore represents a significant health hazard to prisoners and staff members."

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 16:48 | Unregistered CommenterRose2

Hi Rose, I have seen the paper "Second-hand smoke in four English prisons: an air quality monitoring study". It is a full load of junk. However, even if they were right and emissions were hazardous, there are ways to protect non-smokers, for example if smoking was confined to secluded areas or allowed in outdoors shelters.

It is very disturbing (even if expected) that practical rational arguments are useless against a tobacco control bureaucracy that is in a perpetual and totalitarian crusading mode. They (literally) feel that even a minor concession implies total defeat of their grand scheme of global health, even if such concession stems from being compassionate towards disadvantaged populations unable (or unwilling) to give up smoking. There is something profoundly evil on this type of institutional cruelty "for your own good".

Wednesday, September 6, 2017 at 3:05 | Unregistered CommenterRoberto

I note that they weren't even measuring tobacco smoke as it was apparently too expensive.

Second-hand smoke in four English prisons: an air quality monitoring study

“We used PM 2.5 concentration as a marker for SHS, since direct measurement of tobacco-specific toxins in the atmosphere is expensive and sampling methods would be impractical in prison settings."

The lead author is also "Director of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, and chairs the Royal College of Physicians tobacco advisory group.”

Wednesday, September 6, 2017 at 11:44 | Unregistered CommenterRose2

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