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Govt butting out smoking in jails

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

By Maggie Tait and Laura McQuillam of NZPA

Wellington, June 29 NZPA - Former prison manager Celia Lashlie is backing prison staff union the Corrections Association over its concerns banning smoking will see more violence in jails.

Corrections Minister Judith Collins yesterday said the possibility of staff and inmates suing the Corrections Department over second-hand smoke was a factor in her decision to ban prisoners from smoking in jails from July 1 next year.

"The safety and health of our staff is my number one concern in our prisons," she told reporters.

"Corrections has pointed out to me there is a great danger of staff bringing suits against the government for not actually dealing with this second-hand smoke issue, and prisoners as well, have raised the issue with the Human Rights Commission."

Corrections boss Barry Matthews also said double bunking was a factor, but not a major one. Now assessments will not need to worry about pairing non-smokers together.

The Corrections Association has raised concerns about addicts who become aggressive and told The New Zealand Herald today guards had been told by prisoners to expect to get the "bash" for stopping them smoking. It wants more staff on duty and better equipment for guards.

Rethinking Crime and Punishment director Kim Workman said it would be particularly difficult for new prisoners who were already grappling with drug and alcohol withdrawal, and mental and physical health issues.

He said the move was likely to cause "violence or mayhem of some kind".

Ms Lashlie, now a researcher and commentator, told NZPA she didn't "believe for a minute" that the ban was a health and safety move, and it would push already-volatile prisons closer to major incidents.

There were other ways of protecting staff, like having smoking areas.

"You'll introduce another layer of policing that staff have to do to get another level of desperation into the lives of already desperate and disconnected people... I think we're on the verge of some major incidents anyway -- we can't keep doing what we're doing, we can't keep screwing the system down in the way that we're doing and not expect that something will blow, and I think that this will help blow it."

The department expected there to be problems.

"There's no doubt there will be some prisoners that will get frustrated particularly in the early stages," Mr Matthews said.

Prime Minister John Key accepted that was a risk.

"Then there's the other arguments - cigarettes are often used for bartering in prisons, there are risks around lighters and matches. I think on balance, the fact that people need to work in that place and many of those prisoners and corrections officers are non-smokers, then I think it's right."

Ms Collins said arguments against the policy did not stack up when 3500 staff were being exposed to high levels of second-hand smoke.

About 5700 out of 8700 prisoners smoke.

Options such as only allowing smoking outside or requiring smokers to stub out before a guard had to go into their cell were ruled out.

Ms Collins said the smell in cells for non-smokers was unbearable and Mr Matthews said it would be hard to enforce only outdoor smoking as inmates would have cigarettes on them or there would have to be extensive searches every time they went back indoors.

Also there were problems with inmates using lighters and matches to start fires and flames could be used to melt plastic into sharp weapons while tobacco smoke could also be used to conceal cannabis use.

Inmates and guards would have a year to adjust. After that new inmates would have to go cold turkey although an eight-week Health Ministry programme, including nicotine replacements, would be available.

"It's not unbearable because they will be given all the assistance that they need. They'll have the nicotine patches, they will have all the cessation programmes," Ms Collins said.

People with other addictions coped and the department assisted them.

Staff would be able to smoke in areas away from prisoners, Mr Matthews said.

Canada and some states in Australia had the ban and there was already no smoking in police cells.

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