December 04 2023

To Burn or Not To Burn

To Burn or Not To Burn

smoke and mirrors

My first thought to the proposed smoking ban in prison was: ‘Effing good luck with that one’, followed by ‘Ban the burn, then watch the wings go up in smoke and create another black market behind bars’. Pic from Flickr, under Creative Comms licence, from 4.D.

  • You can read John Podmore on banning smoking in prisons HERE

I’m not an advocate of smoking and when I wandered Her Majesty’s wings – yes, been there done that and got the t-shirt – I used to run various programmes to help my fellow peers quit smoking, learn to read and get a job.

A few days ago I was running a workshop for the Samaritans regional conference in London and strangely enough I got Justin and Jason, two of our facilitators, to add a bit about smoking into the role-play. During the workshop I had a flashback to Jason in Wormwood Scrubs and his feeble attempt with nicotine patches. Jason and I had a friend in Scrubs called Scrubby (imagine Fletcher out of Porridge).

Much to Scrubby’s amusement in two years apart from nine emotional encounters with the insanity of life behind bars, I didn’t smoke but nine roll ups did pass my lips. In part it was either that or jump off the landing. In my case it took about a year to roll one up, so it’s probably good that I’m not a smoker. Jason and Scrubby were smokers, so I was delighted when they both decided to try and quit. A week later I noticed two jumpy friends and was not sure if I should strangle Jason or laugh when I saw him smoking whilst wearing a nicotine patch in week two.

Black market
Scrubby, on the other hand, did stop for about five months and was going to follow the governors’ advice and buy some trainers or save for his release with the money he saved.

However, Scrubby being Scrubby went one better and, five months off the burn, he decided to use the money saved via his canteen to purchase some hard drugs for a weekend of total wing oblivion.

It’s amazing what your prison canteen or a money order sent into prison can actually get you. Both nearly made it, neither actually came off the burn.

In fact, much to my dismay, Jason was still having a roll up during the break at the Samaritans conference four years later.

This situation caused Justin and me to reflect with the Samaritans about the political decision to ban the burn. We concluded it would make 80% of the wings more than slightly agitated, create a subculture of black-market tobacco dealers and do anything but calm the wings. Justin and I remember the cell buzzers exploding when people didn’t get their canteen. As Prison Listeners both of us saw many offenders self-harm if they didn’t get their nicotine fix or canteen on time, and I mean real blood pouring from wrists and nurses running!

Yes, tobacco is a commodity in prisons, but so is tuna and I don’t see John West being banned.

Offenders will find a way. In many of our prisons huge numbers of offenders are on hard drugs and far more are on synthetic drugs like spice that circumnavigate the drug tests. I offended a governor once when I said I was not surprised that some open prisons had gone up in smoke. The mandatory drug tests don’t really work, people who want to take drugs find a way around it, so please don’t assume it would be any different with tobacco.

Yes, it’s used for bullying, but don’t think the black market wouldn’t find a way. Some offenders move from cannabis to heroin inside to dodge drug screening tests because heroin is out of the system in days. Unless the emotional issues and withdrawals are supported, just how calm would our wings become if we banned the burn? How many offenders would be pushed to extremes? As a former prison Listener, I dread to think.

I think the point everyone is missing isn’t whether it should be banned, it’s how are we going to get offenders to change their mindsets.

I was an addict for 25 years. My drug of choice was prescription opiates following 19 operations as a kid. My drug addiction was worthy of Michael Jackson, even becoming a doctor to write my own prescriptions (not to be recommended); I would have done anything to get a fix.

Then one day after a suicide attempt, I quit. It was hell for months but it was either that or end up dead and I have never touched anything since. I still live with the damage I did to my body with an impaired liver.

My dad died of liver failure through alcoholism, he didn’t want to quit. I’ve seen a close friend die of lung cancer and Jason’s mother a female ex-offender died of cancer earlier this year.

Focusing on his mindset has seen Jason complete a five-year sentence and speak in front of over 30,000 school kids on the dangers of drunk driving, crime and addiction. I work with Jason, Justin and several other ex-offenders. We all know what any form of addiction can do to you. All of our parents were addicts and most of them died because of their addictions. Jason stood less of a chance as he was a care leaver and society can be a shocking parent. Conquer the addictions in care homes and you might have fewer problems in prisons.

Should everyone stop smoking? YES! Can you force it? NO!

The best way to get people to quit is by getting them to listen their peers. When the really tough prisoners focus on health and fitness they often inspire the other guys to try and quit; that’s what had inspired Jason and Scrubby to try. Jason still tries to quit and one day I hope he finds the right mindset to actually quit smoking for good. But first things first, he found the right mindset to complete his licence, desist from crime and inspire tens of thousands of kids not to commit crime. Like us all he is still on a journey. I will not rest until he gets the perfect mindset and bins the burn.

Before we cause total chaos in prisons, let’s actually start to reform offenders. Teach them to read, show them how to work and, most importantly, focus on their mindset. When it comes down to it mindset is the only thing that helps anyone kick an addiction for good.

Yes, in theory it’s a good idea to ban the burn, but behind the insanity of this idea first focus on the offenders’ mindset to quit.

When you look at the bigger picture, it takes a good attitude to quit and a lot of grit.

It’s not about banning it. They can’t even ban drugs behind bars. It’s about getting the right mindset to never light up and, more importantly, to never reoffend.