Some Further Thoughts on Prison Smoking Bans

A comment by Audrey Silk, comparing prisoners to ‘lab rats’, pointed out another dimension of the prison smoking bans now being rolled out across the UK. And this morning I’ve been trying to sketch out the outline of another letter to my MP, in which this dimension is explored. And so I thought I’d just devote today’s blog to that exploration:

The prisoners in our prisons are being forced to stop smoking. They are being given no choice.

Why do we send people to prison? In the first place we do it simply in order to keep habitual criminals off our streets, thereby preventing them from engaging in further mischief. And in the second place we do it in the hope of reforming them, perhaps by providing them with new skills to replace the skills (picking pockets, breaking safes, forging money, etc) that they employed as criminals.

And as criminals, did not their crimes often entail forcing people to do things they didn’t want to do, and giving them no choice about it? The highwayman who holds up a stagecoach, and inconsiderately demands “Your money or your life!”, is giving its passengers little choice but to part with their money.

And so when we force prisoners, against their will, to stop smoking, aren’t we doing to them exactly what they did to the victims of their crimes? In what way does this teach them to treat others with consideration, if they are to be treated without any consideration? In what way is any prisoner going to be reformed, and learn to be a respectable and considerate member of society, if he is treated in the same inconsiderate and overbearing manner as he treated his victims? Aren’t they in fact being taught that the inconsiderate use of force is the right way – the government-sanctioned way – to do things?

And if the government behaves in the same way as a common criminal, without consideration, and with needless force, hasn’t the government itself become criminal?

One might add that smoking bans for ordinary, law-abiding citizens also entail the use of force – the force of law -, but at present the bans only apply in enclosed public spaces,  and so ordinary citizens retain a high degree of freedom. But since the antismokers are always looking to extend smoking bans beyond enclosed public spaces to unenclosed public spaces – beaches, parks, playgrounds -, and even to enclosed private spaces – public housing, for example -, and so the arena of personal freedom for even ordinary citizens is slowly diminishing. We are all slowly becoming prisoners (and this is one reason why we should be concerned with the fate of prisoners). And furthermore the same sort of restrictions are being gradually applied to other commodities than tobacco, such as alcohol and sugar and salt and fat and meat and carbon dioxide. We are all gradually losing all our freedoms. Our society is becoming a prison.

The justification used for the prison smoking ban is one of health: Public Health. It is said that the prisoners and their wardens will live in a healthier environment as a result of the ban, and consequently live longer. Health (in the form of longevity) has become an idol which we all must worship. Nothing else matters. Or nothing else can be allowed to matter.

But when has health ever been our primary or sole concern in life? When this country went to war with Germany in 1939, in so doing did it not place its citizens’ health in jeopardy, as it sent off its young men to fight and be killed or injured in battle? Did the doctors in the BMA and the RCP protest noisily at this prospect? Or did they instead believe that freedom was something worth fighting and if necessary dying for?

Surely it is the case that we actually value a great many things more than health? Freedom. Happiness. Wealth. Beauty. Honour. The list is almost endless. It is perhaps not very surprising that medical doctors should primarily and exclusively be concerned with health. But why should the primary values of this singular profession be adopted by everyone else? If it had been lawyers whose values we all adopted, wouldn’t we have made justice our primary value?  And if we had adopted the primary values of soldiers, wouldn’t we have made courage our principal virtue? And so on.

And if the exercise of morality is largely a matter of keeping all these various competing values – health, freedom, happiness, wealth, beauty, etc. – in balance, then if one of them gains ascendancy over all the others, to their exclusion, haven’t we become profoundly immoral, because we are no longer maintaining a balance between competing forces, but have instead allowed one to become a tyrant? In placing our prisoners under the sole tyranny of health, we are removing their freedom, happiness, wealth, and anything else they might value.

I could go on. But I’m not sure how to boil down these thoughts into a new letter to my MP.

But I’m not really writing to him: I’m writing to the government. Because in his reply to my letter he said he had passed on my concerns to the government. And he also said he was standing by to assist further in doing this. So I expect that any new letter to my MP will find its way to some government office somewhere in Whitehall. And who will read it there? Will it reach those people who have been advocating and implementing prison smoking bans? Who are these people anyway? What are their names?

And that’s another matter altogether: the namelessness and facelessness of government. The instigators of these bans have no names. They are not called upon to appear in public and answer questions. They are not called upon to publicly justify their actions. They are not held accountable.

About Frank Davis

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6 Responses to Some Further Thoughts on Prison Smoking Bans

  1. Dr Evil says:

    Serves them right. It’s just a punishment. Zero sympathy. If they riot they should be shot.

  2. DICK R says:

    Some prison officers will pay with their lives , a cigarette is the only comfort for many inmates and to be suddenly deprived of that will be too much for many , the officers will bear the brunt.

  3. waltc says:

    (the actor) Robert Mitchum, who was jailed for vagrancy in Texas for a few months during the Depression, once notably observed that “In Texas, it’s hard to know if you’re in or out.” You’re right that that’s getting truer for everywhere. Considering the increasingly far-reaching bans, smokers, at least in part, are under house arrest. Unless they happen to live in housing–either Public or private–where they can’t smoke in their house. That will soon be true of all Public Housing in America, is getting common in privately-owned apartment buildings, and is also being legislated in some entire towns, most notably in California and Alaska,

    As for prisons, once again it comes down to money–money spent on health care from all those merely allegedly “smoking-related” ills (tho funny how they’ll spend it on sex change operations w/o so much as a mewl) and then on the lawsuits by phobic and otherwise pissed-off prisoners. But then too I suppose a cynic might inquire why, when and if it’s really about money, are the systems so eager to keep lifers alive at a housing cost of double-digit thousands a year?

    • waltc says:

      If you do write him again, it might be about the slippery slope to civilian homes and, as with prisons, outdoor recreational

  4. Rose says:


    First Nation chief says tobacco offering from visiting school’s coach a step toward reconciliation
    Sep 30, 2017

    “Kahkewistahaw Chief Evan Taypotat says that’s never happened before, even when First Nations schools visit.
    Kahkewistahaw First Nation Chief Evan Taypotat said Canadians, especially politicians, tend to throw around the word “reconciliation” quite a lot.
    But a recent encounter with a coach from a visiting school made a small step toward that larger goal, he said.

    Last week, Chief Kahkewistahaw Community School hosted the Robert Southey School Screaming Eagles for the school’s first six-man football home game of the season.
    Taypotat said before the game began, he noticed a coach from the opposing team running toward him from the locker room.

    “He had a backpack on his shoulder and when he got close to me he said, ‘Are you
    Chief Evan Taypotat?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I am.'”

    Taypotat said what happened next stunned him and others on the field: the coach pulled out an offering of tobacco and cloth, thanking him for welcoming their school to the First Nation and Treaty 4 territory.

    “We first kind of thought he was joking because no one’s ever done that before and then I realized, you know, after about a split second that he wasn’t,” he told CBC News.

    Tobacco is one of four sacred medicines to First Nations people and is traditionally offered when making a request.

    In a Facebook post after the game, Taypotat said he was “still in awe” of the gesture.”I’ve been teaching at this school on and off for 13, 14 years and we’ve hosted anywhere from volleyball provincials to basketball tournaments to football games to cultural events where we invited a lot of other schools and never ever has that happened. Not even within Indigenous communities,” he told CBC.

    “For me as a chief of a reserve it was a small step, I believe, in the bigger picture of renconclitation.”

  5. audreysilk says:

    I think you make a very intriguing point about the life lessons.

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