It’s been a number of years since the ban on tobacco, Kiwi inmates’ surrogate currency. The results are weird, but also predictable.
Tobacco had been an important part of prison culture, functioning as the main currency and providing a way to unwind in such a pressurised environment. Inmates could share roll-ups with each other to cement bonds or forge alliances. Prison officers would sometimes use the promise of a cigarette as a means of pacifying troublesome prisoners. Smoking was embedded in the fabric of the New Zealand prison system.
Various experts criticised the ban before it even came into play in 2011. Peter Peterson of PARS pointed out that the ban could prove difficult to enforce and negatively impact inmates’ mental health, while the chief executive of a offender rehabilitation charity claimed it breached prisoners’ human rights. Nevertheless, it happened, and prisons removed tobacco from the list of items inmates could buy.
Gee Dogg, who was locked up for stints both before and after the ban, told me it’s had no impact at all on how much inmates smoke. Dana*, a serving prison officer, confirmed this. In fact, Dogg says tobacco remains so widespread that it’s retained its place as the main trading commodity – it’s now just more expensive.
“Tobacco is still a currency, but it’s become black market,” says Dogg. “It started coming in over the wall and in through family visits, and a 50-gram pouch – which is $70 at the corner store – became $450 inside.”
That said, there is no fixed fee. The price of a 50g pouch varies, depending on a number of factors, such as how many people are dealing in tobacco and how difficult it is smuggle into a jail. When there’s a drought or a prison is ramping up its efforts to keep contraband items out, a 50-gram pack can go for as much as $600.
As a consequence, the tobacco trade in prisons now resembles the trade in illegal drugs such as sinnies. In other words, it’s got more cutthroat, and some inmates are being robbed at knife-point for their smokes. Because of the price hike and the fact there’s more profit to be made, the prison “taxmen” – the cons who steal from other criminals – now go after tobacco as well as drugs or mobile phones.
According to Dogg, this has made smoking a risky pursuit for those without the necessary muscle to protect their stash. “People would get tobacco on visits, then when they got back they’d be robbed at knifepoint in the cell for it,” he says.
Sometimes these robberies happen as a result of desperation, with inmates craving tobacco so badly that they’ll stop at nothing to procure it. But for those who are less inclined to violence, a secondary currency has now come into play: nicotine patches. This isn’t because inmates are trying to stop smoking; instead, they steam them open using a kettle, pour the nicotine out, mix it with tea and use it in roll-ups in place of tobacco. These varieties of tea are favoured both because they taste nicer than regular tea when smoked, and because the leaves are larger so don’t get sucked up through the roach as easily.
Now, nicotine patches – handed out by prisons in an effort to help inmates quit smoking – are selling for five times their value in the outside world. But this mixture of nicotine and tea, known inside as “teabacco”, is far more dangerous than tobacco. The dosage of nicotine within each patch is intended for slow release, not to be consumed within the time it takes to smoke a roll-up. Each patch contains 78 milligrams, and a lethal dose can be as low as 500, meaning prisoners run the risk of overdosing if they smoke too many. The large number of inmates who smoke teabacco has also made the quality of air in New Zealand’s prisons worse than it was before the ban came into place, which isn’t great considering that one of the initial justifications was that staff were being put at risk by the tobacco smoke in the air.
Other substances have accompanied “teabacco” as a replacement for tobacco, many of which are also likely to be sullying the prison air. There was a sharp increase in the use of synthetic cannabinoids (Sinnies) following the ban, with inmates smoking the synthetic cannabinoid without tobacco in homemade pipes made out of plastic bottles and asthma inhalers. Thanks National for the Sinnies!
Some prisoners switched to sinnies from tobacco, Dana told me, because it’s easier to smuggle into prison: in liquid form it can be absorbed into paper and posted in, and is often sprayed onto letters made to look like legal paperwork. This has led to staff at some prisons having to ring solicitors’ offices whenever a letter claiming to be from them arrives, in order to check that it’s genuine.
Watson tells me that some prisoners have also started taking meth when they’re unable to get their hands on tobacco because they miss smoking a stimulant. “It also escalated the prescription drug trade,” he says. “The trade in Valium, Subutex and sleeping pills went through the roof.”
Stress in prisons is now at record levels, and while the various other drugs on offer have provided an alternate means for the majority of prisoners to relax, there are still some inmates who lack the financial resources to purchase anything on the black market. Some of these prisoners have turned to self-harm because their main form of stress relief – smoking – has become unattainable.
Dogg was volunteering as part of the Samaritans’ Listener scheme when the ban was put in place. This scheme involves trusted inmates listening to prisoners who are in a state of distress talk about their problems. He claims there was such a violent surge in self-harm following tobacco being banned that the Listener scheme and other suicide prevention measures were stretched to the limit.
“I’d come out onto the wings and all I’d see was red flashing alarm bells where people were putting their emergency cell bells on,” he says. “People were stringing up with their emergency cell bells on, which weren’t being answered because there was no staff available.”
Greg Newbold, a prison and probation expert, says the ban has contributed to an increase in inmate-on-inmate violence in NZ prisons. This appears to be partly due to the fact that inmates now have to purchase tobacco from ruthless loan sharks in place of the prison shop. Fletcher adds that the rise in violence is also partly linked to the role that tobacco had in helping inmates deal with the boredom, monotony and drudgery of prison life. He claims that austerity and a lack of staff has led to prisoners being cooped up in their cells all day, which breeds anger and resentment. While, before, they would have able to relieve their frustration by smoking a roll-up, this option is no longer available, so they take it out on each other instead.
So, it seems the tobacco ban went exactly as expected: not well. Could it have worked better if cutbacks hadn’t stripped prisons of the necessary finances? Perhaps. But it seems naive to expect people who habitually break the rules and are often very good at doing so to stop smoking tobacco just because it’s not allowed. Where there are profits to be made from something, there will inevitably also be people who are willing to supply it. That’s as true for tobacco behind bars as it is for drugs on the outside, and no amount of planning or resources is going to change it.