Banning smoking in Australia’s jails is a tough call, but worth trying

Banning smoking in Australia’s jails is a tough call, but worth trying

We have recently learned that NSW plans to end smoking in all of its jails by this time next year to bring it into line with Queensland and the NT. Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania are also expected to make similar announcements in the near future. No official statement on this subject has yet been made for Western Australia, but the ACT government has confirmed that its plans for a similar ban are "progressing" even though a final decision has not been made.

There is much detail to be added, but it seems possible, even likely, that before the end of 2015 all of Australia's prisoners (by then at least 35,000) will not be allowed to smoke in their cells (as is already the case in some jurisdictions) nor in exercise yards, or elsewhere within the jail boundaries. Furthermore, the ban will apply equally to all staff and visitors. both professional and domestic.

There is no doubt that the motivation for this major change in jail management policy is to improve the health of prisoners and to eliminate the insidious effects of passive smoking on non-smoking staff and prisoners. Surveys have shown that around 85 per cent of all prisoners are smokers (compared to about 13 per cent of adults in the community) and this is seen as a significant health issue.

As praiseworthy as the motivation may be, I would argue that every detail of the change in policy be considered very carefully as it will be extremely difficult to achieve 100 per cent success, and the consequences of moving too quickly could be disastrous and result in considerable upheaval within the prison environment.

It was only a little over 17 years ago that we saw the impact of a non-smoking policy at the brand new Woodford Correctional Centre in Queensland. Soon after it was announced that smoking would no longer be permitted, a major riot occurred and many hundreds of thousands of dollars were required to repair the damage. Subsequently, the prisoners were once again allowed to smoke in their cells and elsewhere in the prison. At the time all Australian senior correctional administrators learned a great deal from the Woodford experience, but those lessons were apparently not learned by their political masters.


Even with very careful planning the introduction of a prison non-smoking policy can run into unexpected difficulties. New Zealand is a case in point. Over a period of 12 months, New Zealand prison authorities undertook a comprehensive program of training, with the full support and co-operation of the uniformed and professional staff, leading up to the total ban which started on 1 July 2011. At every stage the staff and prisoners stressed the basic fact that they were both facing the same challenges.

The program was largely based on education and cessation counselling, and nicotine replacement therapy was made available well before the ban came into effect. Group discussions focussed on the fact that the majority of smokers (in prisons and in the general community) have expressed a wish to give up smoking if they were able to do so. The general health effects of smoking, including second-hand or passive smoking, were also widely discussed, and of course the positive outcomes of quitting were reinforced.

Shortly after the ban came into effect there was a unexpected development when a prisoner, who was not himself a smoker, challenged the lawfulness of the ban in the High Court and he won the case! The New Zealand government response was to introduce regulations banning tobacco and smoking equipment, presumably to make this a matter of law rather than administrative discretion. Even though the judge ruled that the regulations were unlawful, the government ignored this ruling and the prisons have thus remained smoke-free.

By the middle of 2012 the prison smoking ban was generally seen as a success with a number of prisoners expressing their appreciation of the clean-air environment and the fact that they now had more money to spend on other things such as phone cards. There had been no riots or other disturbances, but the authorities did concede that a few newly arrived prisoners had tried to smoke the nicotine replacement patches. No doubt some others were obtaining tobacco that had been smuggled in.

The New Zealand experience suggests that smoking bans in prisons can be reasonably successful provided that careful plans and preparations are made. It is obviously essential that uniformed staff are fully supportive (even if some leave to seek other employment). It is therefore essential that the ACT government reaches an agreement with the staff which ensures that they will actively support the new policy position well before it is implemented.

Aa a matter of principle, a smoking ban must not be seen as an additional punishment. It should be seen as an unavoidable consequence of incarceration in much the same way that it is a consequence of being in hospital. Also, successful quitting should as far as possible be rewarded by, for example, granting additional privileges, and finally some provision must be made for those, especially remandees, who are simply unable to quit smoking in the short time they are in custody.

I have never been involved with a radical program which aimed to change the basic culture of a whole institution, or whole correctional system, but I have had personal experience of the challenge of stopping smoking. Just over 27 years ago I was a heavy smoker when my life was shattered by the sudden bereavement of a family member. I made a private decision then and there to quit smoking without any assistance or advice. With the support of my wife and my close work colleagues it was successful. I now realise that had I not taken that decision it is unlikely that I would still be alive today to write this little piece.

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

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