Focus on the real menace of drugs in prisons, not smoking

PUBLISHED: 10:58 24 February 2018 | UPDATED: 10:58 24 February 2018

Smoking: Shouldn't prison authorities be concentrating their efforts at stopping drugs being smuggled into prisons instead, asks Steven Downes.

Smoking: Shouldn't prison authorities be concentrating their efforts at stopping drugs being smuggled into prisons instead, asks Steven Downes.


The subject of prison brings out the best and worst in us. I’m not saying whether the “lock them in a medieval cell and feed them once a day with boiled rat” is the best or the worst.

Neither will I say that I favour yoga classes, Sky TV and sushi.

My views on the prison regime fluctuate like the heart rate of an interval runner. It often depends on which criminal I have last heard about in the media. Some bring out the inner Norman Tebbit, others the Norman Lamb.

I do know that the danger of becoming institutionalised is real. For many prisoners, routine, regular meals and some certainty are far more attractive than the chaos they experience on the outside.

This is a big leap, but during my three months in Hellesdon Hospital (not a prison, but certainly an institution) I became comfortable with the rhythm of life and dreaded trying to return to what passed for normality.

I shared space and time with many patients who were far more attached to the hospital environment. On any occasion that one was released, I was deeply fearful on their behalf.

Some were back pretty quickly – perhaps because they couldn’t cope or maybe they just preferred Hellesdon to Hell. I hope that nobody reading this advocates a more Spartan regime in mental hospitals. I suspect that would harm people’s health, rather than speed up rehabilitation.

The case in prison is far less open and shut, as I’ve already said.

So where do you stand on prisoners being allowed to smoke?

Wayland Prison, near Watton, is about to become the latest place to bring in a total on-site (inside and outside) smoking ban.

Good job, eh? For it’s not meant to be a holiday camp. Prison should deprive its guests of their fun and make them regret their villainous behaviour.

That said, I might surprise you when I say that I don’t support a total smoking ban at Wayland or at any prison.

Banning it indoors should be automatic: does anyone really still think we should recreate the blue-grey haze of Porridge and add health and a future to the things that prisoners are deprived of?

But for goodness’ sake keep the odd outdoor smoking area.

I’m not saying it out of respect for the wishes of prisoners, who haven’t earned that right.

It’s more that I do not see the point in introducing yet another potential point of conflict for prison officers to deal with.

Banning smoking means tobacco becomes jail contraband: just one more thing to search for and detect at a time when prisons are near to breaking point. I’d sooner the meagre resource was focused on a real menace – drugs.

The daily list of prosecutions at Norwich Magistrates’ Court is punctuated by people outside and inside Wayland and Norwich prisons accused of attempting to smuggle drugs.

The porousness of our prisons is chilling to contemplate.

It puts vulnerable inmates at risk, undermines authority and maintains the cycle of addiction and offending.

Smoking is not a big deal in that context, so why make it into one?

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