Thank you for smoking

In bygone days the crapper in the education block at HMP Highpoint was basically a smoke house. Before the introduction of the smoking ban last week it billowed perpetually with a thick nicotine-rich fugg so dense that the facilities were hazardous to negotiate and the “No Smoking” signs on the walls tricky to spot. The loos themselves functioned mostly as armchairs which made Rob feel bad when the call of nature occasionally forced him to request the vacation of a cubicle. After a few fags men with skin like parchment and hands that were yellowed and stained might pop into the library for a chat or a book or a change of scene. There are few pleasures on the inside. A combination of fags, books and empty bowels is about as good as it legally gets.

For weeks the various strata of prison life have been readying themselves for the impending purgatory of the ban. The governor even saw fit to purchase a full sized cigarette outfit and persuade one of the more trusting lads to dress up in it: a witty harbinger of doom. Black marketeers have been judiciously stockpiling their new product, rubbing their hands together in grateful glee. Designers and engineers have perfected small crack pipes so that spice can be consumed in ever more lethal fashions and quantities.

In the 1990’s branding guru BJ Cunningham invented Death Cigarettes. Encased in a black packet and emblazoned with an iconic white skull and crossbones packs bore slogan’s like “Too bad you’re gonna die”, “It’s your funeral” and “The grim reaper don’t come cheaper”. We are all going to die. What matters to us is the liberty to choose how we live. Prison largely removes choice and so small freedoms become vital, hence why most prisoners smoke.

“They” like “us” know it kills in the end, its lethal effects are writ large on the packet, but there’s plenty will do that for you quicker in the slammer than a death stick. In a week that has seen another fatal stabbing at Scrubs, the focus on lung cancer before lung puncture might be considered by the skeptical (who moi?) as a cynical use of smoke and mirrors. Every three days someone takes their own life in a British jail and we want to demonise that most effective, successful and (in comparison to suicide) relatively innocuous anxiolytic of all the time? Ban the humble ciggie?

And don’t start about staff health and passive smoking. Current staffing levels ensure that officers rarely stray into prisoner territory which is why drug taking and violence are more prolific than anyone who hasn’t experienced these conditions first hand could ever imagine. No-one gives a hoot about the secondary smoke inhalation of the convicts themselves. If inmate health was of the teensiest concern, prison food would be budgeted at more than it costs to feed a dog and 23 hour bang up would raise the occasional eyebrow in the corridors of power.

No… like Grayling’s 2013 ban on books this latest “initiative” is all about subjugation. When it comes to prisons, HM is the ultimate dominatrix. As a group we can be fairly confident that most prisoners aren’t good with rules. Banning “burn” is nothing more than the perverse desire of the powerful to design ever more deceitful sticks with which to beat their captives.

When a smoking ban first came into effect at Isle of Man prison in 2008 inmates resorted to boiling up Nicorette patches and infusing absorbent materials such as tea, dried banana skins and pubic hair with the resulting solution. This noxious filling was then rolled up in pages of the bible or (wittily)The Criminal Code and defiantly smoked. Over 800 power cuts and many more low level electrocutions resulted from inmates short circuiting plug sockets to spark up.

Sometime during my adolescence my sensible and occasionally draconian mother banned my long suffering father from smoking anywhere, at anytime, on the irrefutable grounds that as his wife, she would certainly suffer the effects of his future ill health at least as much as he would. The result was that his car became a reliable source of mints of all descriptions and that he continued his filthy habit at work. Summer camping holidays were a little tricky – we children frequently discovered him squatting behind our old Citroen, frantically wafting away plumes of verboten smoke in a futile effort to remain undetected. If my mother could not break the habit of a man who, for all his sins, has adored her his whole life then I don’t give Her Majesty great odds with this latest prohibition.

We all have “props” that make life more bearable. Our family crutch and primary prison survival tool is the phone. Last week I held Tala in my arms whilst she sobbed so violently she could hardly breathe. Rob had just told her that he would no longer be calling at bedtime as all privileges had just been withdrawn from every member of his unit. The Albanians (bless them) had uploaded footage of their New Year’s Eve party to Facebook and the press had discovered it, thereby scandalising decent folks with this wanton display of immigrant happiness and advertising the shock existence of illegal mobile phones in prison. Gasp.

Hundreds of prisoners are caught and intermittently punished for phones every day of the week (13000 mobiles were confiscated in prison last year) but when the press get involved stories are spun and “the authorities” panic hence this knee jerk decision to punish 70 uninvolved men and their families.

Aged 11, Tala doesn’t smoke at home yet, so we had to make do with cuddles and lullabies to get her breathing under control. Finally she fell asleep on my chest, soothed by the rise and fall of my smug pink lungs.

To Highpoint’s credit they lift the punishment eventually and our family is reunited over the airwaves at bedtime, but the damage is done and “the child” as she is affectionally known in our household, is becoming familiar with depths of despair that I had hoped would remain unfathomed until perhaps her first romantic love affair.

Stress is at least as carcinogenic as cigarettes. This ban will bring that on in spades and herald new and greater levels of debt and punition, not to mention the inhalation of pubes and other unsavoury and as yet uninvented substances guaranteed to make tobacco look positively angelic. It will play well in the press though. In a world where sensation, scandal, blame and debauchery sell, our laws are being dictated by media empires in whose interest it is that society remains as fractured and divided as possible. Happiness and harmony just don’t sell. You can stick them in your pipe and smoke them.