Almost six months ago in June of 2017, the UK prison system announced plans to ban both smoking and vaping amid warnings of potential increases in violence. Prisoner affairs experts had already seen a dramatic escalation in cases during the pilot project of the preceding year taking place in select areas of some 21 facilities around the country. When the nationwide ban officially took effect on August 31, wardens, security personnel, and prisoner advocacy groups began monitoring the situation closely while secretly hoping that they might be proven wrong in the end.
At first, the smoking and vaping ban seemed to be running rather smoothly, with only a small uptick in ban-related violence during the first few days. However, other circumstances would soon come to light that would only exacerbate to near-epic proportions these stress-related side effects of inmates forced to give up smoking.
Smoking and vaping bans, overcrowding, and understaffing
Consistent prison overcrowding and under-staffing issues were already leading to an increase in diagnoses of mental health issues among inmates, such as depression and several forms of self-harm. With the still-new smoking ban added into the mix, things quickly began to get out of hand.
On September 3, HMP Birmingham (Her Majesty’s Prison Birmingham) was the site of an anti-smoking riot of sorts. Prisoners began to lash out, yelling, “We want burn! We want burn!” Similar prison riots took place in Cambridgeshire, Huntingdon, and Wales.
A spokesperson for the HMP Littlehey prison in Huntingdon issued the following statement.
“…The increase in violent incidents may be a long-term reaction to the introduction of the no-smoking policy”.
Meanwhile, prison officials from HMP Parc, the South Wales facility, stated the following similar claim.
“The board is concerned that the smoking ban might be a factor in increased incidents of self-harm and violence.”
To be fair, prison overcrowding has been a headline issue in the UK for several years. According to a report in a UK socialist website, conditions are so catastrophic that many inmates fear leaving their cells while others are contemplating or attempting suicide and other forms of self-harm on a steadily increasing basis.
When a prison riot broke out in the HMP Lewes facility, one incarcerated refugee said that the living conditions in UK prisons are “worse than Syria.” While the smoking bans are probably not entirely to blame, they certainly didn’t seem to help.
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