Smoking in Prison

Smoking in Prison

Inside Time Article

Burn Baby Burn

Why smoking bans in prisons always go up in smoke

The July introduction of smoking bans in prisons triggered a prison riot of historical scale and intensity in the Australian state of Victoria. Twelve hours before the ban commenced, outraged prisoners lit fires and caused $10 million worth of damage to prison property. Authorities retaliated with tear gas and firearms in a bid to control the chaos.  Corrections Victoria chief Jan Shuard said that a violent inmate reaction was unexpected.  But did the riot really come as a shock to authorities?

A recent investigation into prison overcrowding by the New South Wales Inspector of Custodial Services anticipated growing unrest in prisons. The report highlighted the danger of exposing already uncomfortable inmates to the extra stress of smoking bans. The report added that authorities should not be surprised by prisoner non-compliance and riots.  Banning smoking is degrading to prisoners. It causes resentment and increasing the likelihood of their re-offending upon release.

As of 10th August, smoking bans will be enforced in prisons in the state of New South Wales. Parties such as the Prison Officers’ Union have voiced concern that this will spark riots and protests in a similar vein to the Victorian experience.  Despite this, Corrective Services NSW does not seem willing to negotiate or reconsider the bans.

Corrections Victoria justified its ban on the grounds that ‘smoke free prisons provide a healthier and safer workplace for everybody, a safer prison system and a better quality of life for people who quit smoking.’The problem with such a narrow focus on the health and occupational health effects of smoking is the blindsiding of other live issues. Certainly, in the state of Queensland, assaults on prison officers have doubled since the introduction of a total smoking ban.

The loss of stress relief adds to the trauma and mental health stress of those living in tense environments. In already overcrowded facilities, the loss of human choice ushers in a level of punishment beyond the original sentence being served. Indeed, smoking bans work to deny a central piece of prison culture. In the UK, an estimated 85% of prisoners describe themselves as smokers. A similar 84% of Australian inmates identify as such. Prisoners spend $28 of their $30 wages on tobacco.  Everybody knows that smoking has positive effects on the mental and emotional health of prisoners. Controlling the personal pleasure of prisoners lowers violence rates and maintains safe prisons. Smoking provides relief from the boredom and stress that defines time inside. It is a social activity that can bridge differences and unify prisoners.  It is one of the few available avenues of self-determination and responsibility. Smoking has a role as a currency, being used by inmates to trade varied items and favours.  It is one of the few things that inmates can bring inside, granting them continuity and comfort.

According to addiction expert Dr Alex Wodak of St Vincent Hospital in Sydney, Australia, banning cigarettes leads to the creation of black markets, intimidation and smuggling by correctional staff. Prisoners turn to harder drugs and violence as substitutes. Given its importance and nature, smoking should not be banned. It is unjust and amounts to the deliberate torment of people who have already lost everything.

In any case, there is clear evidence that bans do not work. Steve Kisely from Griffith University Medical School affirms that people only quit smoking in the long-term because they want and intend to do so. Studies show that where inmates are forced to give up smoking, almost all resume the habit immediately upon release. Such findings should not, of course, be used to deny a role for programs that encourage and support inmates in a quest to quit smoking.

Smoking bans jeopardise the possibility of genuine care in prison programs and management. They deny inmates the physical, mental and emotional health rehabilitation to which they are entitled. Balance must be found between respect for smokers and respect for non-smokers. 

There are effective and fair ways to achieve this balance without resorting to bans. For one, smoking could be limited to use in open yards so non-smoking prisoners and staff are not subject to exposure, as was successfully trialled in 2012. Alternatively, e-cigarettes could be introduced to combat nicotine dependence. Research suggests that e-cigarettes have lower toxicity levels than traditional cigarettes. The absence of carbon monoxide also means any second-hand smoke ingested is not as harmful. Justice Action has asked prison authorities to adopt the UK experience with e-cigarettes to avoid the chaos that confounds us all.

Olivia Richards-Hill

Justice Action

E-Cig Proposal to NSW Government

We have proposed to the Corrective Services Commissioner, Minister, Shadow Minister and Greens for the use of e-cigarettes as a way to avoid problems of occupational health and safety while also being respectful to non-smoking inmates and staff. We believe that the government has a responsibility to avoid the potential conflict and tensions that may arise in NSW prisons following the ban.

E-cigarettes have been successfully used in UK prisons. These experiences have been outlined in two articles from Inside Time:



Justice Action is willing to assist in such an implementation if the government chooses to adopt it. At the moment we are still waiting for a response.

Prisoner's Plea


Letter about ban from prisoner


Dear XXX and the Justice Action Team,

My name is XXX. I’m from XXX Correctional Centre.

I am requesting please, as a smoker and on behalf of other smokers, as there are a lot of other inmates in this jail and other jails as well who smoke, assistance to intervene in the banning of smoking in prisons.

I am asking for extreme help to stop, abolish or cancel Corrective Services pushing and forcing inmates to give up smoking, when most of them or all of them, including me don’t want to quit at all! There are even those employed by Corrective Services who are quitting their jobs or taking redundancies because of the smoking being banned in mid to late August and many of them aren’t happy about it at all.

I was wondering, with your help, if we can take Corrective Services to the ACCC or to Supreme Court or High Court of Australia to stop Corrective Services stopping inmates from smoking in jails. I need your help to stop them for good because if it keeps going, a lot of inmates aren’t going to be really happy at all. Because of it, I believe there will be a lot more fights, stabbings, with inmates going to hospital for really serious injuries to the body and head.

Please can you help us to prevent this and make us all happy again? We want, if possible, get as much legal as we can to help us to take this Action to the Commissioner, or if that doesn’t work, to the Courts.

Thank you all.

Kind Regards,


P.S. If you can’t do it, could you find someone to take this request on please.

Smoking in Prisons


No smoking symbol1

Banning smoking in prisons is a deliberate torment of people who have already lost everything. It is the bullying of people who are totally in government control, but it is seen as an easy political statement of being seen to be tough and increasing the punishment of imprisonment.


Schools Rehearse Emergency Plans ahead of Smoking Ban at Long Bay Jail

What Is Really to Be Gained From Banning Smoking in Prison?

E-Cig Proposal to NSW Government

Inside Time Article

Report on Meeting with Corrective Services NSW on ‘NSW Smoking Ban’

Prisoner's Plea


Almost every prisoner smokes and their cell is their home. This is the one pleasure that prisoners control and is legally available in the general community. To remove that just adds tension and further damage to being isolated, bored and feeling hopeless. It makes our community outside more dangerous by stirring unstable people who are released in their hundreds every day - over sixty thousand every year. Administrators admit that it isn't a health issue as all revert to smoking upon release. Positive influences and smart management are necessary to improve the social health and safety of our community and to justify the $100,000 a year per prisoner. This is the opposite.

Corrective services NSW is planning to ban smoking in prisons under laws commencing in August 2015. In Victoria it has begun. In the stressful and tense environment of a prison, inmates have very few opportunities to exercise the right to choose. As 80% of prisoners smoke, tobacco plays a central part in the prison culture. It is often used as an outlet for stress, as a social activity between inmates and as a form of comfort and relief.

Studies of existing prison smoking bans have revealed that in some institutions up to 93% of prisoners continue to smoke despite existing bans. While the detrimental health effects of smoking are widely known and a key factor behind the ban, extensive research has shown that we simply cannot prevent people from smoking unless they are motivated to quit. Steve Kisely from Griffith University Medical School, one of the world’s leading researchers in public health, is adamant that bans do not work. He affirms that “meaningful change can only occur when the patient has moved through the pre-contemplative, contemplative and planning stages through to the action stage”. As tobacco is a vital part of prison culture, it will always find a way to get into the correctional system and by not encouraging people to quit in a supportive manner, no positive motivation is fostered and tobacco use will continue.

The issue of passive second hand smoke is a key factor influencing the changes proposed to smoking in prisons. As the Australian Cancer Council notes, “second-hand smoke exposure causes serious illness and death in non-smokers”. In 2012-13, Lithgow Correction Centre engaged in a trial process for banning smoking in all common areas of the prison. In doing so, non-smoking prisoners were not directly exposed to cigarette smoke. The ban was seen as effective and a respectful way of working with prisoners to ensure there weren't any additional tensions in a very tense area. However, the current proposal to ban all smoking in prisons is inhumane, counterproductive and frankly unnecessary when there are numerous other alternatives that would achieve the desired effect without causing harm to the inmates. Allowing smoking in outdoor areas, or establishing a designated smoking area within public spaces of the prison are just a few examples of the range of options available to Corrective Services. 

Furthermore, prison unions have observed a spike in prison assaults, mass unrest, and suicide attempts associated with smoking bans. In 1997, the Woodford Correctional Centre in Queensland was opened with a smoking ban. Three weeks later, riots occurred where prisoners attempted to burn down the structure. After investigating the reasons behind the riots, a government inquiry found the ban on smoking to be a large contributing factor to the unrest. Other studies have uncovered concerning stories from smoke-free prisons overseas. In February 2008, 70 inmates in a Quebec prison set fires inside their cells to protest a ban on smoking at the facility. Furthermore, according to addiction expert Dr. Alex Wodak of St Vincent Hospital, smoking bans only inspire the creation of black-markets, intimidation, and smuggling by correctional staff thus causing further tensions within the correctional system.

Justice Action firmly believes that a smoking ban in prisons will cause agitation, trauma and frustration amongst inmates, and will ultimately cause severe damage to both people and property. As smoking is still permitted amongst the rest of Australian society it is cruel and unfair to implement such a ban on the prison population, where smoking culture remains a large part of prison life. The decision stands as a symptom of the disrespect that authorities have for those under their control. In the April 2015 Inspector of Custodial Services report, the fact that “Inmates and staff in NSW correctional centres are under significant stress, and …that even small additional pressures can make the difference between conditions that are uncomfortable and those that are intolerable… will need to be acknowledged when smoking in correctional centres is banned from August 2015”.

Instead, with creative management and goodwill, respectful compromises could be reached. There are a number of other options available to Corrective Services including designated smoking areas, which will resolve the issue of other prisoners and guards being subjected to second hand smoke. Only through working with prisoners can positive changes occur. This attempt at a ban provides an excellent chance to examine government rehabilitation policies generally and see why they have failed so comprehensively. The easy top down style using force always fails. There is time to talk. Many prisoners want to quit smoking and crime. Let’s not deny them the chance through counterproductive and ineffective force.

For more details, see Justice Action's analysis paper


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