New Zealand to ban smoking in prisons

Image caption, There are fears that the ban will create a black market in tobacco

New Zealand is to ban smoking throughout the country's prisons from 1 July 2011, Corrections Minister Judith Collins has announced.

The announcement has prompted concerns that violence in prisons could increase if prisoners are denied tobacco.

But Ms Collins dismissed the warnings and said high levels of smoking were a risk to staff and prisoners.

About 5,700 prisoners - two-thirds of the current total in New Zealand prisons - are smokers.

The corrections minister said smoking bans had been introduced in prisons in the US, Canada and Australia.

"We don't supply alcohol to prisoners because they are alcoholics, we don't supply them with all sorts of drugs and methamphetamine because they happen to be addicted to methamphetamine," Ms Collins said.

"This is a prison. It's not home. It's actually a prison. So it will be a total ban across all prisons. Not in the cells, not even out in the yard."

Prisoners will also be banned from having matches and lighters which some use to damage property, such as throwing burning balls of toilet paper at guards and setting fires in their cells.

High value

Former inmate Shenelle Ngatai told TVNZ that cigarettes were like gold in prisons, where they are used as currency.

She also said that jails would become more corrupt if cigarettes were taken off prisoners.

"I had no money when I was inside. I was swapping my food for cigarettes, not so much starving myself but I survived on them basically."

Denying inmates their "fix" would lead to an increase in violence between desperate prisoners, she added.

Human Rights lawyer Michael Bott agreed that the ban would cause more problems than it might solve.

"They are going to be very frustrated, very dangerous; it's a toxic dangerous environment, made even worse by such foolishness as this," he told 3News in New Zealand.

However, Ms Collins insists that the smoking ban will have other advantages.

It would make it easier to put more than one prisoner in each cell, she said, and reduce the number of prison officers suing the government for being exposed to second-hand smoke.

Prisoners are to be given stop-smoking courses, and nicotine patches, to help them deal with withdrawal symptoms and quit over the next 12 months, reports said.

New prisoners coming in after a year, however, will have to stop immediately.

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