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Can You Smoke in UK Prisons?

Smoking was once commonplace in UK prisons, but increasingly stringent bans have now outlawed the practice in all enclosed spaces within jails. While total tobacco prohibition is rare, most prisons only allow smoking outdoors within designated areas at certain times. This article outlines the evolving policies, health concerns, and realities of smoking behind bars in the UK prison system.

The Changing Policies on Smoking in UK Prisons

Attitudes towards smoking in correctional facilities have shifted dramatically over the past two decades:

  • Pre-2007 – Smoking was widespread in cells and indoor areas. Tobacco was deemed a useful pacifier.
  • 2007 – England banned smoking indoors in prisons under the Smoke-free Law. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland subsequently followed.
  • 2015 – Smoking banned in all enclosed public places and state vehicles in UK prisons.
  • 2018 – NICE recommended completely smoke-free policies for all UK jails.
  • 2021 – All UK prisons expected to be essentially smoke-free indoors and in outside exercise yards.

The aim is now to effectively prohibit smoking within UK prisons to protect the health of inmates, staff and visitors from secondhand smoke risks.

Reasons for Banning Smoking in Prisons

There are several reasons behind the progressive banning of smoking in UK jails:

  • Protect non-smoking inmates, staff and visitors from passive smoking health hazards
  • Improve the long-term health of inmates by encouraging smoking cessation
  • Reduce smoke nuisance and damage caused by cell fires due to smoking materials
  • Increase hygiene and reduce cleaning costs by eliminating second-hand smoke residues
  • Provide healthier environment for staff to work in across whole prison estate
  • Reflect changing norms in wider society, where smoking bans are now the norm
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However, the increasingly stringent policies have been controversial with both inmates and prison staff.

Health Concerns of Prison Smoking

Smoking was initially tolerated in UK prisons but the health impacts prompted reforms:

  • Up to 80% of inmates were smokers according to pre-ban research.
  • Prisons had much higher rates of smoking than the wider society.
  • Secondhand smoke poses significant health risks including lung cancer, strokes and heart disease.
  • Inmates forced to share cells meant non-smokers could not escape the smoke.
  • Ventilation systems were often inadequate at removing smoke in aging prison buildings.
  • Smoking-related litter was a fire hazard and hygiene issue.
  • Giving up smoking due to bans causes withdrawal issues for addicted inmates.

Both prisoners and employees unions argued bans were too punitive given the stresses of incarceration.

The Reality of Smoking in UK Jails Today

While indoor smoking has been eliminated, some prisoners still smoke illicitly:

  • Most prisons only allow smoking outdoors in designated smoking areas.
  • Inmates are limited to smoking outside during designated times on a roster system.
  • Smoking materials are strictly controlled with tobacco treated as contraband.
  • Despite bans, reports indicate some inmates still smoke illegally in their cells.
  • An estimated 10-15% of prisoners still smoke within UK jails.
  • Smoking results in punishments like cell searches, solitary confinement and loss of privileges.
  • Secondhand smoke from outdoor areas still drifts back into buildings in some aging prison estates.

Achieving compliance with blanket bans poses challenges in the prison environment.

Punishments for Smoking in UK Prisons

Inmates caught smoking in prohibited areas of UK prisons face a range of disciplinary actions:

  • Confiscation of tobacco products found during cell searches. These are contraband items.
  • Removal of privileges like television or recreation time.
  • Fines can be imposed under prison disciplinary procedures of up to £200.
  • Time in solitary confinement or segregation away from other inmates.
  • In extreme cases, extra jail time can be added onto the existing prison sentence for disobeying orders.
  • Prosecution for arson if smoking materials are proven to have caused cell fires. This can add substantial extra jail time.
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However, some critics argue that draconian punishments for smoking fail to address the underlying addiction issues.

Smoking Cessation Support in UK Prisons

To help inmates comply with smoking bans, UK prisons provide:

  • Medical support like nicotine patches or gum to help overcome cravings and withdrawal.
  • Counseling services and support groups for inmates trying to quit smoking.
  • Self-help materials with information on quitting methods.
  • Carrots rather than sticks – rewards or privileges for prisoners who quit smoking.
  • Occupational activities and regimes to distract from smoking urges.
  • Peer support programmes where ex-smoker prisoners mentor others.
  • Staff training to enable officers to support prisoners struggling with bans.

However uptake of these services is often limited.

Debates Around Prison Smoking Bans

While hailed as improving health, smoking prohibitions in UK jails remain contentious:

Arguments in Favour of Bans

  • Protects non-smoking prisoners and staff from secondhand smoke
  • Improves long term inmate health
  • Reduces health system costs of treating smoking diseases
  • Lowers fire risks from lit smoking materials
  • Reflects positive norms in wider society now prohibiting smoking

Arguments Against Bans

  • Too punitive to ban one of the few pleasures in prison
  • Smoking helps inmates handle stress of incarceration
  • Illicit smoking and smuggling of tobacco continues
  • Inmates forced to quit cold turkey suffer withdrawal
  • Outdoor areas like yards still have drifting secondhand smoke

Reconciling these opposing views continues to challenge the prison authorities.


In summary, smoking has been progressively banned across UK prisons due to mounting health concerns, although illicit smoking persists among some inmates. While prisons aim to be essentially smoke-free spaces, enforcing compliance poses difficulties. The debate around balancing rehabilitation-focused policies with punitive bans remains a lively one in corrections.

Key Points:

  • Indoor smoking banned in UK prisons since 2007 due to health risks.
  • Prisons aimed to be mostly smoke-free indoors and outdoors since 2018.
  • Inmates now only allowed to smoke in designated outdoor areas at certain times.
  • But illicit smoking in cells still occurs despite punishments like cell searches and fines.
  • Cessation support like patches, counseling and self-help offered.
  • Complete bans argued as too punitive by some but welcomed by others as improving health.
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Are you allowed to smoke inside UK prison cells?

No, smoking has been banned in all indoor areas of UK prisons since 2007. Prisoners are not permitted to smoke within their cells.

What happens if you get caught smoking in a UK prison cell?

If caught smoking within prison accommodation, inmates face punishments such as cell searches, confiscation of tobacco, fines, loss of privileges, solitary confinement and in serious cases even extra time added to their sentence.

Do UK prisons provide any help to quit smoking?

Yes, UK prisons offer smoking cessation support like nicotine patches or gum, counseling services, support groups, self-help materials and peer support programs. But inmate uptake is often limited.

Are e-cigarettes allowed in UK prisons?

No, e-cigarettes and vapes are prohibited for prisoners in the UK. These are categorised as smoking materials and banned from being possessed or used within UK jails.

When are prisoners allowed to smoke in UK jails?

Most UK prisons only allow smoking outdoors within designated smoking areas during scheduled times on rotation. Inmates must smoke during their allocated time slot. Smoking is restricted to certain outdoor zones only.

Have smoking bans been effective in UK prisons?

Indoor smoking has largely been eliminated from UK jails due to the bans. But illicit smoking within cells still persists among an estimated 10-15% of the prison population, suggesting compliance is an ongoing challenge.

Imran Khan

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About us

We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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