In a new directive, prisoners at the Lithgow jail in central western New South Wales will be banned from smoking in their cells as part of a six-month trial to begin next year.
According to a Corrective Services spokesman inmates will only be allowed to smoke in designated outdoor areas. This means they would not be able to smoke for the 16 hour locked up periods. Along with this heavy smokers will be offered nicotine patches to ward off cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
Brett Collins, from the lobby group Justice Action, warns the move will heighten tensions between prison staff and inmates. “Eighty per cent of prisoners smoke and of their $30 [of] earnings, they pay $27 for tobacco…So this is fundamental to the lifestyle of prisoners, and to take it on as something to be looking after prisoners is an outrage,” he said. Prison officers union and prisoner advocates are also worried about the anxiety and depression it will cause prisoners locked up from 4pm to 8am.
Earlier figures released by Corrective Services show about 75 per cent of male and 81 per cent of female inmates smoke. Cigarettes have also long been used as jail currency. Research in New Zealand, where smoking will soon be banned in jails, has shown that prison staff were exposed to second-hand smoke at levels 12 times the national average.
The Corrective Services Commissioner, Ron Woodham, said the ban would reduce the exposure of staff and inmates to the harmful effects of smoking. A joint working party from Corrective Services and Justice Health, the agency that provides healthcare to prisoners, presented Mr Woodham options to cut smoking rates, including a ban on cigarettes in the jail. The group will meet soon with unions and WorkCover to discuss the trial.
Mr Woodham said smoking rates among inmates were unacceptably high. “Staff shouldn't have to open a cell door and be knocked out by a cloud of tobacco smoke,” he said. He would monitor the progress of smoking bans in other jurisdictions before considering widening them.
The NSW prison officers union, the Public Service Association, said the department needed to first introduce a program to help inmates quit. “We'd be concerned that some inmate who is on nicotine withdrawal could lash out at an officer,” the association's senior industrial officer, Stewart Little, said.
Don Byrne, professor of psychology at the Australian National University, with a special interest in smoking behaviour, expects inmates to react negatively to the ban. Heavy smokers in nicotine withdrawal would suffer “a good deal of agitation”, he said.
Federal prisons in the US have already banned tobacco over concerns about the hazards of second-hand smoke. Jails in Queensland and Victoria have had smoking bans in their buildings for several years and neither state has experienced any serious problems, the department spokeswoman said.