OPINION: From the middle of next year New Zealand's prisons are set to emulate Australia's and become smokefree.
It is a long overdue move. It was an anomaly that prisoners could still smoke in their cells as the rest of New Zealand moved increasingly towards a no-smoking regime.
School grounds, hospitals, and other government departments have gone smokefree, as have bars, restaurants and businesses, and, in Christchurch, there is even a smokefree policy in parks.
For many prisoners – two-thirds of inmates – an enforced cold turkey regime will seem a hardship or even a civil rights breach. But those who have committed crimes against society should not expect the right to smoke, just as they cannot legally have alcohol and drugs.
A stated reason for banning smoking is the Corrections Department fear that other inmates or prison guards will take legal action if they have been exposed to passive smoking. In the case of other inmates, the prospect of legal action will increase as the move towards more double-bunking continues.
But it is also incongruous that inmates can have access to cigarette lighters or matches in what are supposed to be secure facilities. It raises the risk of arson and of prisoners melting plastic items to insert blades.
Another reason for banning tobacco is that cigarettes are a form of currency in many prisons and have been the source of tension and fighting between inmates.
Ultimately, however, banning smoking in prisons is an issue less about the threat of legal action or security but about health.
It is beyond doubt that smoking is a leading cause of illness and premature death. Each year there are about 5000 smoking-related deaths in New Zealand and the habit is a massive burden on the health system.
It was for health reasons that the areas where smoking is permitted have been progressively narrowed, why the Government announced an increase in the price of tobacco by lifting the excise tax, and why the Maori Party supports even tougher moves to reduce smoking.
The high incidence of smoking among prisoners, many of whom are Maori, means that the introduction of smokefree prisons is one of the best ways to improve the overall health of inmates.
And for many prisoners, giving up smoking would also remove a drain on their income when they are finally released.
The risk of tobacco being smuggled into prisons has been raised and, of course, this will be attempted. But the same security measures already in place to prevent drugs and other contraband entering prisons should also limit the scope for cigarettes to be smuggled in.
Not introducing the policy until the middle of next year should provide the necessary time for the smoking ban to be well managed. In particular, it is essential that prisoners have access to counselling and smoking cessation programmes.
The more prisoners who can kick the habit, the less the danger that inmates, deprived of their tobacco, will become violent towards guards and other prisoners.
Provided that those prisoners who do want to give up their tobacco addiction receive assistance to do so, the addition of prisons to the growing list of no-smoking environments should be welcomed.
- The Press