The first major impact of the smoking ban has been to push the price of black market tobacco up to £150 for an ounce. By comparison, copper currently trades at 80p per ounce and bars of silver bullion exchange hands for £14 an ounce. A secondary result has been a boost in the popularity of the once-legal high Spice, as prisoners seek it out because it’s cheaper than tobacco.
It seemed so positive at the beginning of the year. Specially designed electronic cigarettes were approved, following successful trials, and were to be rolled out for inmates to buy - but problems became apparent in both functionality and supply.
Then words of warning began flooding in. Expert Alex Cavendish warned against the ban: “We have a mental health crisis, fuelled by under-staffing and overcrowding, as well as the fact that prisons are already awash with drugs and mobile phones, as every report from HP Inspectorate confirms. You’ve already got an epidemic of suicide, self-harm and violence both against staff and other inmates.”
He was clear, the focus for the ban was missing a big picture perspective: “It seems that this is being rolled out primarily as a means of avoiding potential compensation claims from staff and non-smoking inmates, rather than actually looking at the evidence of the problems that are well-documented.”
The response was inevitable. Without additional money to fund quit programs, and with cigalikes that cost too much, sometimes didn’t work, and failed to deliver sufficient nicotine, prisoners turned to other substances.
On 3rd September riots broke out in HMP Birmingham while prisoners chanted: “We want burn! We want burn!” It followed similar events in Wales and Cambridgeshire.
The report into the incident at HMP Parc in south Wales said: “The board is concerned that the smoking ban might be a factor in increased incidents of self-harm and violence.”
The report into events at HMP Littlehey stated: “the increase in violent incidents may be a long-term reaction to the introduction of the no-smoking policy”.
Sheila Kimmins is the chairwoman of Erlestoke prison’s independent monitoring board. Quite unbelievably, she is on record as supporting the success of the introduction of the tobacco ban. A report into incidents at Erlestoke logs tobacco selling at £150 an ounce – not even a run on bibles shook Kimmins: “Our chaplain had a big call on Bibles. He said he had had so many conversions because people want a Bible because it is very thin paper and perfect for roll-ups. He had to find Bibles made of reconstituted paper.”
A head in the sand policy has been extended to the Prison Officers’ Association too. Steve Gillen, POA’s general secretary, said: “the introduction had gone well so far and that the increase in violence was a result of there being too few members of staff on the wings.”