Prison smoking ban could increase tensions behind bars

A blanket ban on smoking in prisons could lead to increased tensions in jails, according to a new study.

Researchers at Leeds Beckett University examined the role that tobacco plays in daily life behind bars both for prisoners themselves and prison officers. Through a series of interviews and discussions with inmates and staff, they found that smoking is embedded in the fabric of prison life, where it plays an important role in relieving anxiety.

The researchers warn that a total ban on smoking in prisons could have a negative impact on the mental health of inmates and even potentially lead to an increase in violence.

Until recently prisons are only subject to a partial smoking ban and prisoners are still allowed to smoke inside their cells. A total ban on smoking was introduced to high security prisons in England at the end of August, while one could be in place in Scotland by the end of next year.

Study co-author Dr James Woodall, a reader in health promotion at Leeds Beckett University whose research focuses on the health of the prison population, said: “Tobacco is become fundamental to daily life in prison. Prisoners use it as a way of relieving tension and stress. Tobacco is also often traded by prisoners. A ban risks driving it underground and creating a black market for tobacco, much like has happened already with drugs, mobile phones and sim cards. This can then result in bullying and physical intimidation that accompanies these sorts of underground markets in prisons.”

The study, which was carried out as part of student Allison Tattersfield’s Masters dissertation, conducted discussion groups with 33 inmates and staff at a Category C Prison to find out about how tobacco is used behind bars.

Around 80% of inmates in Britain’s jails are smokers – accounting for 68,000 of the 86,000 prisoners behind bars in England and Wales. Research has shown, however, that second hand smoke was putting the health of staff in prisons at risk.

A pilot scheme in Wales saw 21 prisons become smoke-free last year, but there have been reports linking it to increased levels of violence.

In the new study, which is published in the journal Health Promotion International, prison staff expressed reservations about a total smoking ban.

Dr Woodall added: “The research showed that with all the other aspects of prison life that prison staff have to deal with, it may be difficult for staff to enforce the ban.”

The researchers also called on prisons to ensure they have adequate smoking cessation services and nicotine replacement therapy available for inmates when the ban starts.

But Dr Woodall said prisoners may also need other types of support too.

One prisoner told the researchers: “Some people smoke to deal with problems, they take themselves away into their cell and smoke and become calm.”

Dr Woodall said: “When access to family and the outside world is restricted, this last piece of personal freedom, however small, can be important. To the outside world, a smoking ban makes sense in terms of the physical health of prisoners, but it the impact it could have on the mental and social health of inmates is quite different.”

“While we are not against a smoking ban in prisons, what our findings suggest is that there needs to be enough support in place to help people when they do stop smoking. This is only a relatively small study in one prison, but it highlights some of the wider problems that may result from a smoking ban.”