Last week, stories appeared in the press claiming that the second-hand smoke from inmates smoking the legal high ‘spice’, are causing staff to fall ill. VolteFace asked our resident prison expert Alex Cavendish for his take on events. Here’s what he had to say:

Just how dangerous is second-hand smoke from psychoactive substances? It’s a question that the Prison Service in England and Wales may need to address as a matter of urgency.

Both the media and prison inspectors have been reporting on the escalation in availability and use of so-called ‘legal highs’ – new psychoactive substances (NPS) – in prisons for some time. However, there have recently been several news stories focusing on the alleged effect on prison staff who claim that they are being exposed to the second-hand fumes when prisoners smoke synthetic cannabinoids such as Black Mamba and Spice.

According to the International Business Times, four prison staff working at HMP Rochester in Kent had to be sent home after complaining that they were feeling ill. One was reportedly hospitalised. Back in December there were reports of prison staff at HMP Durham being taken to hospital, while in January similar claims were published concerning HMP Holme House in Stockton.

David Cameron touring HMP Onley (Gov.uk)
David Cameron touring HMP Onley (Gov.uk)

So, just how widespread is this problem likely to be across an already dangerously understaffed prison system, at a time when the incarcerated population in England and Wales is close to an all time high?

Of course, it’s impossible to comment on individual cases of staff complaining of illness. As with the smoke from almost all drugs – including legal ones such as tobacco – people can react differently, with some suffering extreme reactions. Those who have a history of respiratory problems or pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure are perhaps more likely to experience an adverse reaction.

However, having been exposed regularly to second-hand smoke from various kinds of ‘wacky baccy’ when I was a prisoner myself in 2012-2014, I do wonder how much of the media coverage is being hyped.

It is worth noting that the main source for most of the recent stories about instances of staff sickness following exposure to alleged Spice or Black Mamba smoke have been promoted by the Prison Officers Association (POA), the union that represents uniformed staff and some other prison employees. Although the POA isn’t anything like as militant as it used to be decades ago, it still carries considerable clout within the Prison Service.

The POA is also well versed in using the media to its advantage, particularly the red top tabloids which always have an appetite for sensational stories from inside prison walls. One of the major themes of POA campaigns in recent years is the shortage of staff across the prison estate which the union claims is putting both its members and prisoners at risk. Given that the number of staff employed had fallen by around 40 percent between 2010 and 2014, this is a concern that is shared by leading prison reform campaigners.

Another of the POA’s media lines is that the health of its members is being adversely affected by exposure to second-hand tobacco smoking by prisoners who are currently permitted to buy and smoke cigarettes or rolling tobacco from prison canteens in their own cells (although not in any public areas of the prison). In reality, many of the complaints about smoking restrictions in prisons have come from uniformed officers, some of whom light up at any given opportunity. A few used to sneak into the cells of prisoners they knew well who also smoked to have ‘a pastoral chat’ – and spark up a sly ciggie while still at work on the wing.

As one very experienced senior officer – who smoked liked a chimney – once told me at the time a blanket ban on smoking was under consideration: “I’m a 40-a-day man and the day my right to smoke behind my office block is ended is the day I take early retirement.”

Wikimedia Commons
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Long after a rule was announced restricting staff smoking to the car park outside the main gate, six or seven prison staff, uniformed and civilian – including a governor grade – could be observed at the rear of the Offender Management Unit puffing away during the tea and lunch breaks. My own estimate was that a good half of all staff members were devotees of the weed (tobacco, rather than cannabis), so clearly the union isn’t reflecting the views – or personal habits – of all its own membership.

Lately, the POA has been very eager to highlight the impact of so-called ‘legal highs’ on its members. Whenever there is media coverage of the harms caused by NPS in custodial settings – including debt, violence, bullying and illness, up pops a POA spokesperson keen to lament about the health impacts of officers working in a ‘toxic’ smoky environment.

As mentioned above, I myself spent a couple of years being exposed regularly to the fumes of Mamba and Spice – or similar substances – being smoked by fellow prisoners who had mixed their illicit stash with ordinary rolling tobacco. True, you could definitely smell that whatever was being smoked wasn’t regular Amber Leaf from the canteen sheet, but at the same time, I very rarely had more than a mild headache and even that only after I had been sitting in a mate’s cell having a mug of prison tea while he enjoyed something a bit stronger as he blew the smoke out of the slender crack in the narrow window opening.

When I moved on to an open prison – where at least half the inmate population was smoking anything they could get their hands on – most of the lads on my corridor were smokers, like 80 percent of all prisoners in our jails. There were times, for example, just after the final roll check of the evening, when the landing outside my room was thick with smoke, much of it from NPS blends. Yet, as a lifelong non-smoker who also has high blood pressure, I honestly never felt any real adverse reaction.

This leads me to wonder whether there might be a little bit of over-exaggeration going on in these tabloid stories, an element of ‘gilding the lily’ in which the POA is happy to assist on behalf of its members. Maybe the frontline wing staffers are dissatisfied with the response of the local management to their complaints about widespread use of illicit NPS, so to concentrate the governor’s mind a few have to go home during their shift, thus throwing the rest of the daily timetable into chaos? Who knows? However, what is clear is that a rising number of staff complaints of sickness add yet one more dimension to the current epidemic of NPS use in our dysfunctional prisons.

Alex Cavendish is the founder and primary contributor to Prison UK: An Insider’s View

Read our our interview with Alex Cavendish, and you can also read our Editor-in-Chief on the need for a new conversation about drug reform

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