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Vaping Behind Bars

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Enforcement of smoking ban could boost specialist e-cig

The UK prison system is in crisis. Massive budget cuts, staff losses and overcrowding have led some critics to declare that many prisons are simply not fit for purpose.

At the end of May this year, 76 of the 117 prisons in England held 9,496 more people than they were designed for and in the last 30 years the prison population has increased by 82%. Given that around 70% of inmates suffer from mental health problems and many of these are locked in their cells for extended periods each day, the fact that 80% of male prisoners are smokers is hardly surprising.

So the decision to make all prisons in England and Wales smoke-free by the end of August this year was a controversial one. And it was only a matter of time before stories of unrest hit the headlines. HMPs Haverigg, Drake Hall, Birmingham and Walton in Liverpool have all reported riots, with further violence and damage reported at HMP Cardiff, among others.

To outsiders it may seem odd that smoking has been tolerated in prisons for so long. After all, the nationwide ban came into effect everywhere else a decade ago. But as prison cells are considered ‘homes’ rather than workplaces, they were exempt from the law, much to the frustration of the minority of non-smoking inmates who opposed indoor smoking on health and safety grounds.

An unfortunate side-effect of the policy has been a worrying increase in the use of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS). Drugs such as Black Mamba and Spice have been wreaking havoc on the prison system for a while now, causing users to react unpredictably and sometimes violently, leading many to be hospitalised.

The Independent Monitoring Board addressed this in January:

“Since the introduction of smoke-free there was almost a doubling of rulings against prisoners in which they lose benefits, predominantly in NPS related offences, resulting in a large increase in the number of days added to sentences.”

Given the dangers of depriving inmates of one of their few luxuries, it seemed logical that vaping could fill the void. But as some devices could potentially be misused, former Senior Prison Officer Darren Haley has come up with a tamper-proof, disposable alternative that’s good for 320 two-second puffs – the equivalent of 30-35 cigarettes.

E-Burn has been designed with prisons, NHS mental health secure units, private hospitals and nursing homes in mind. At first glance it looks pretty basic – just a plastic tube with a couple of wires intersecting on the inside. But considerable thought has gone into every element of its design.

The rigid body makes it very difficult to modify or weaponise and as it’s semi-transparent, any attempts to do so would be easy for staff to spot. Inside the tube is a serial number which can be traced back to the prisoner it was supplied to. The glowing green light at the end helps detect the presence of tobacco and other prohibited substances.

E-Burn has already been picked up in the USA and has been trialled at a number of secure facilities in the UK. Midway through a six-month trial at The Isle of Man Prison, Prison Governor Bob McColm is optimistic that the devices could help both prisoners and staff sharing their environment.

“Changes in the behaviour of inmates is being monitored closely; but anecdotal evidence shows that this trial has been a success. The Independent Monitoring Board has said that the environment is clearer and cleaner. All feedback from staff, inmates and IMB is positive.”

Even if pilots do prove to be successful, that doesn’t necessarily mean that E-Burn will be rolled out nationwide. But given the fact that it is a far a more attractive smoking-cessation aid than traditional Nicotine Replacement Therapy and is thousands of pounds a year cheaper for the taxpayer, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service would be foolish not to give E-Burn time to live up to its huge potential.

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