Monday, 5 July 2010

Got a smoke, mate?

The solipsism of smoke. The ritual of smoking (and who did it better than Humphrey Bogart?) restores the smoker to the calm centre of his self. With a cigarette in his hand, even the most battered and broken criminal once again becomes the hero of his own story. It is this restorative power that Corrections Minister, Judith Collins (channelling Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) is so determined to stub out.

NOTHING PROTECTS like a cigarette.

It’s why we gave them away by the carton to young soldiers heading for the front-lines.

It’s why two-thirds of prison inmates smoke.

There’s something immensely comforting about the smoking ritual: tap out the cigarette from the pack; seize the dry filter-tip between your lips; snap a flame from match or lighter; suck back that first stream of nicotine-laden smoke and let it go deep into your lungs; feel the body’s instant response to the drug.

Lighting-up is something you do: not the guy sitting next to you; not the girl waiting outside; but you. Over all the pain, anger and confusion tearing your guts to shreds, the cigarette has the power to calm, to focus, to reassure. At the heart of this totally screwed-up scene there is still a hero: and that hero is you … having a smoke.

It’s why lighting-up a cigarette is still such an effective punctuation device in the making of a movie. Forget all about the indisputable scientific evidence of cigarette-smoking’s fatal effects. That Promethean moment, when the human mastery of fire and smoke is demonstrated for all to see, cannot help but signal and reinforce the smoker’s heroic status.

And that, of course, is why we want to ban cigarette-smoking in our prisons. It’s got nothing to do with the dangers of second-hand smoke (though dangers there are) and even less to do with the health and safety of prisoners and guards (though both would be better off without cigarettes). We, in the person of the Minister of Corrections, Judith Collins, are banning cigarettes from prisons because, deep down, we know that in depriving inmates of this last display of individual autonomy; this last precious means of remaining the hero of their own stories; we’re going to really hurt them.

Our need to hurt the criminal classes is as potent as their craving for nicotine, alcohol and other drugs. Two hundred years of humanitarian reform have unreasonably deprived us of the pleasure and we mean to make up for lost time.

We’ve had enough of all the scientific explanations of criminal offending. Why? Because, somehow, the research always seems to come back to us. Somehow, the social scientists always contrive to locate the causes of criminality in the wider society. It’s the way we respond to poverty and its effects, they say. It’s about how we apportion social praise and blame. Material and/or cultural wealth, and the way we distribute it, insist the experts, lies at the root of criminal behaviour.

We’re sick to death of hearing this sort of stuff. How can the hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens of this country possibly be to blame for the actions of its criminal class? We don’t rob dairies at the point of a gun. We don’t break into our neighbours’ houses and steal their property? We don’t abduct and rape young women on their way home from work. We don’t shake our toddlers to death.

No, we don’t. But neither are we willing to vote for a political party which promises to spend the money required to address the problems of the people who do. We’re not ready to pay the taxes necessary to solve the housing crisis afflicting poor communities. We’re unwilling to properly resource the mental health sector, or fund the groups looking after drug addicts. And when a Minister of Corrections presents blueprints for new prisons: designs which acknowledge the best practice of correctional facilities overseas; we mutter darkly about "five-star hotels".

We’re always ready to get tough of crime; but we balk at getting tough on the causes of crime.

A psychiatrist would recognise this country’s punitive corrections policy for what it is: a massive exercise in projection. To keep our own moral complexion spotless we are driven to make the criminal’s ever more hideous.

The cheapest and most politically expedient way of doing this is by incarcerating offenders in grim establishments more or less guaranteed to produce ugly behaviour. Herd them into overcrowded and understaffed prisons – and when these inevitably overflow – shove the surplus criminal population into converted shipping containers.

Our prison system has become the institutional equivalent of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray: a monstrous proxy representation of New Zealanders’ collective refusal to confront their own selfishness and cruelty.

Got a smoke, mate?

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 2 July 2010.


Cnr Joe said...

Nice one Mr Trotter.
Nanny State!! Msm? Nanny State!
But, no.

Olwyn said...

Yes. While I think that Ms Collins' decree will be informed to some extend by the fear of being sued for 2nd hand smoke, especially with the planned double bunking, I think that the strongest motive is the quashing of autonomy, as you say, and with it, an action that can be used to express rejection of the value-system being imposed. Like banning the wearing of green or tartan in previous bouts of oppression.

peterquixote said...

With regard to smoking drugs and the comfort thing you mention Trotter,
Most of the people prosecuted in Operation Lime
[selling lights, and plastic to people who smoke dope] are to be handed down home detention.
Samples of uirine or blood can be taken anytime worse than rules in prison, so there is no smoking, no drinking allowed, or you can be recalled.
Interesting program dudes,

Anonymous said...

I have doubts about banning prisoners from smoking. Tobacco is addictive because it is a drug - a drug that moderates a person's mood.

"A psychiatrist would recognise this country’s punitive corrections policy for what it is: a massive exercise in projection. To keep our own moral complexion spotless we are driven to make the criminal’s ever more hideous."

The adoption of "double bunking" and the rape culture it causes is a worrying new development.

Can anyone honestly say the banning of smoking is out of concern for prisoners' health and safety?