Banning smoking in Australian prisons has become a nationwide issue

Just over a year ago an opinion piece of mine was published in this journal under the title "Banning smoking in Australia's jails is a tough call, but worth a try". In that piece I outlined in some detail the work that had been done in New Zealand to successfully launch a total ban on smoking by inmates and staff in all jails in the country in mid 2011. I also mentioned the tentative beginnings of similar developments in some parts of Australia.

Since then progress has been remarkably rapid. Here is a brief summary for the whole of Australia. The Northern Territory was the first jurisdiction to ban smoking in July 2013, and Queensland was the second to do so in May 2014. Next, Tasmania made its three jails smoke-free in January this year. These developments occurred with little or no apparent disruption or difficulty.

It was a different scene, however, in Victoria where a ban was announced to start in July of this year, but before it came into effect a serious and costly riot occurred in the Ravenhall Remand Centre. The riot lasted for 15 hours, involved about 300 inmates, and caused damage estimated to cost up to $10 million. The causes of this riot are still being investigated and it is possible that other factors may have been relevant, but it seems reasonable to assume that the proposed smoking ban was at least one of the causal factors. Nevertheless, I have been reliably informed that the ban was implemented relatively smoothly at Victoria's 13 other prisons

The next cab off the rank was NSW where it had been announced for some time that a smoking ban would start on August 10. No riots or disturbances have yet been reported, but the issue has been complicated by an exemption being granted to staff who live in houses located within prison property, but no staff would be allowed to smoke within the operational parts of the prison. Also, the spokesperson for Justice Action has claimed that prisoners are still smoking as the ban only applied to the purchase of new tobacco products.

It seems that a "wait and see" approach to this issue is appropriate in NSW. The state inspector of custodial services, Dr John Paget, in a widely circulated report on prison over-crowding in May of this year, issued a strong warning that (with many cases of three prisoners being held in single cells and greatly reduced time out of cells) conditions that were seen as uncomfortable could become intolerable when smoking is banned.

The South Australian government  has made a number of announcements since 2011 indicating that smoking in jails was to be banned on a particular date, but it seems that a total ban has not yet been imposed. It is possible that a ban was introduced in the Adelaide Remand Centre this year as well as a ban on smoking in cells across that state, but a total ban in all parts of all correctional institutions seems to be unlikely until 2016.


That only leaves Western Australia and the ACT, and they provide an interesting contrast. The responsible minister in WA, Joe Francis, said in June of this year that smoking would not be banned in jails in his state at this time as prisons officers were divided on the issue and such a move might be "a bridge too far". He also said he was keeping an open mind on the issue.

The responsible minister in the ACT, Shane Rattenbury, recently issued a statement to the effect that he was committed to a ban but would not name a date for the implementation until he had received legal advice and he had more information on the subject from the other Australian jurisdictions. The hesitation of both of these ministers is readily understandable, particularly in the light of the recent Victorian experience, but the ACT position is at least based on a positive attitude.

In all Australian prison systems where smoking bans have been introduced they have been preceded by a lengthy period of preparation during which time both staff and prisoners  have engaged in education sessions, quit programs, and the use of nicotine patches and lozenges which reduce the craving for nicotine. This approach has been claimed to be the basis for the successful ban in New Zealand.

Preparations of this type are to be commended but they contain a basic flaw: for many remand prisoners there is simply no time for these activities if they have been admitted to prison only a few days before the ban comes into effect. (This problem could also occur with short-sentence prisoners who may arrive in prison at any time directly from the courts.) It would not be feasible to exempt new remandees from the ban as it would be quite unmanageable to allow a small number of prisoners to smoke while the majority are banned.

There is no easy answer to this problem, but it should be recognised that for a small number of prisoners there will be little or no assistance or support with the significant psychological adjustment that is required. Smoking bans are not intended to be punitive but they will certainly be seen in that light by those who have no choice but a 'cold turkey' transition. I guess it may be some consolation to these people if they are reminded that they are in that same situation as individuals who are suddenly admitted to hospital, perhaps as a result of a car accident or unexpected illness.

The overall aim of prison smoking bans is to create a more healthy environment for both staff and prisoners, particularly those who are not smokers, but prior to the bans were required to live and work in harmfully polluted conditions. Furthermore, many prisoners who have quit in prison admit after the event that their lives and their health were improved by the bans.

David Biles is a semi-retired criminologist who lives in Canberra.