New Zealand Law Society - Prisons five years smoke-free

Prisons five years smoke-free

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New Zealand Prisons have now been smoke free for five years following a controversial law change that was challenged in the High Court by a so-called jail house lawyer.

On 1 July 2011, tobacco products, matches and lighters became unauthorised items in New Zealand prisons.

But that decision didn't roll over without a constitutional legal fight by a non-smoking inmate at Auckland Prison.

Described in the media as a career criminal, Arthur Taylor who is not a lawyer, challenged the validity of the rule imposed by prison managers under the Corrections Act 2004, which he took to the High Court and successfully won.

The Government didn't budge, and responded by changing the law over a year later, with clauses in Corrections Amendment Regulations 2012 declaring tobacco and equipment used for smoking tobacco to be unauthorised items, removing "tobacco" as a privilege.

Despite the legal hurdles, Corrections Minister Judith Collins says prisons are safer and healthier since smoking was banned five years ago today.

"I was Minister of Corrections at the time and I asked Corrections to ban smoking in prisons because I was deeply concerned about both the health risks of second-hand smoke and the safety risks of lighters and matches.

"Prior to the ban around two-thirds of the prison population, or 5700 prisoners were smokers – triple the rate of smoking in the community at the time," she says.

Mrs Collins visited prisons when smoking was permitted in cells and says the environment was awful for prison staff.

"Today, while prison is never pleasant, it is a much improved place to work.

"Prisoners would use matches and lighters to set fire to balls of toilet paper and throw them at staff, or cause significant damage to prison property by burning bedding and other items," she says.

Mrs Collins says she saw CCTV footage of fires lit by prisoners that spread quickly and caused considerable danger.

"Staff tell me that since the ban they are now much safer at work and since matches and lighters were banned, fires and arson incidents have significantly decreased, from 76 in 2010/11 to four in 2014/15," she says.

Prisoners were encouraged to give up smoking before the ban came into effect, and offered nicotine replacement therapy including patches and lozenges.

"Giving up smoking has led to a positive improvement in prisoners' lives, with better health being experienced. Prisoners' families and friends also no longer have to provide significant sums of money for prisoners to buy cigarettes," she says.

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