Burning issue
Monday, September 4, 2017 at 13:28
Simon Clark

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 (Politics.co.uk).

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).

Article originally appeared on Simon Clark (http://taking-liberties.squarespace.com/).
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