Vapes Have Transformed Prisons
Vapes and prisons tend to be linked when it comes to vapers visiting countries where vaping is banned, but the disruptive technology has had a transformational impact on the environment of the British prison system. Getting jailbirds to switch to quit has enabled the establishments to become smoke-free and currently prisoners are spending over seven million pounds a year on their ecigs.
Vapes on trial
The potential for e-cigs to be used in jail began back in 2013 at Les Nicolles prison, in Guernsey. Given four years notice of a ban on tobacco products, staff looked at alternatives. They discovered there was an issue with chargers and traditional vapes, so a special vape device was developed for use in secure establishments.
Despite predicting issues moving a large smoking population away from tobacco, prisoner officers reported that the vape trial had been a huge success and anticipated problems with violence hadn’t occurred.
Consequently, the initiative was rolled out across the UK, Wales in 2016 and phased in across England in 2017.
And are vapes used in Scottish prisons too?
Yes, and the Tobacco in Prisons study and the E-cigarettes in Prisons study confirmed the “favourable perceptions” they recorded mirrored “broader evidence on their appeal and effectiveness”.
What was of particular note, and one that can be applied to the general population, is the research team found switching to vaping was a striking success among smokers who were either unable to quit tobacco or simply didn’t want to.
How did switching to vapes change prison behaviour?
While nobody is going to claim that vaping produces behavioural changes, the trial conducted on the Isle of Man did produce some interesting findings.
While they were testing whether electronic cigarettes could be used, they noted that during the six-month trial period in Jurby Prison that warnings handed out for poor behaviour fell by 58%. Interestingly, there was also a drop of 50% in power cuts and the number of prisoner disciplinary hearings fell by 48%. Prison staff also estimated that handing out free vape kits resulted in the prison shaving £8,500 off their previous nicotine replacement therapy costs (patches and gum).
Are vape kits given out free to prisoners?
No, not anymore. There were handed out for free during the various trials to see if they worked, but now inmates have to buy their own ecig supply.
The Ministry of Justice has stated: “All closed prisons have been smoke-free since 2018 to protect staff and prisoners from passive smoking. Prisoners can purchase vapes and e-cigarettes at their own expense, which many use to help quit tobacco.”
How much do prison inmates spend on vapes?
Over the 2019 to 2020 financial year, inmates spent £4,446,459 on vapes and another £23,656 on electronic cigarettes.
The latest figures show that inmates spent millions on vapes at their prison canteens over the last financial year (to April 2022) has grown to over £7,500,000, but spending on electronic cigarettes has fallen to almost £8,000. This total level of spending is said to represent a “three-year high”.
How are vapes different to e-cigarettes?
Looking at the most recent canteen list for HMP Pentonville, it appears that disposable-type products are classified as vapes and the basic ones resembling cigarettes are classified as electronic cigarettes.
Has spending changed?
It certainly looks like it. In the nine months to January spending has reached £6,730,176, but it should be noted again that this isn’t coming from official funding – it is all inmates paying for their own devices thereby saving the prison service on the stop smoking support costs it used to shoulder.
This has been confirmed by the Ministry of Justice, which said: “Prison canteen services offer a wide variety of products, including vapes, to prisoners that are delivered by an approved national supplier responsible for sourcing products to meet the needs of the population. All canteen purchases are made by prisoners using their own money.”
Everybody must be really happy with this situation?
No. The Howard League for Penal Reform warns that the increased spending reflects a couple of issues. The first being a rising prison population and, secondly, the possibility that non-smokers/non-vapers are turning to vaping in order as relief from the day-to-day boredom of being locked up in their cells for hours on end.
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at The League believes prisoners should be allowed to access fresh air and exercise, engaging in positive healthy activities instead. They are “all essential to help people in prison to live more healthily”, he said.
The Howard League’s chief executive also thinks vapes are being used to escape boredom, but importantly remembered an essential point. She said: “Prison is a stressful environment with many prisoners spending up to 23 hours a day locked in their cells with little to do. It is understandable therefore that many turn to nicotine for comfort…from a health perspective, it is preferable for prisoners to be using vapes and e-cigarettes than smoking.”
The prison system used to hold a population with a smoking addiction at far greater levels of that found within the general population. Moving establishments to a smoke-free footing was always going to present issues, but the development and growth in popularity of vaping has helped them to transition relatively seamlessly.
The experience has added to the knowledge gained from tobacco user population studies of how well vaping works as a smoking cessation tool.
On top of improving the health of inmates, vaping has also resulted in cost savings from nicotine addiction treatment programmes and now, through prison canteen sales, generates extra revenue for prison governors to use.
This compares strongly with approaches taken in Thailand, Singapore and Australia where smoking rate drops have stagnated due to opposition to vaping – and where vapers can be jailed simply for owning something that can reduce their exposure to harm. All told, vaping has been a huge success story in the UK’s prisons, mirroring the stop smoking successes in the wider society.