THE Corrections Minister, Judith Collins, has confirmed that smoking will be banned in prisons from July next year. The move, she said, would make prisons safer and healthier for staff and prisoners. As with similar initiatives overseas, there is also a concern that taxpayers could be liable for legal action by prison officers or non-smoking prisoners exposed to inmates' second-hand smoke. The initiative is bound to be applauded by those who believe inmates have an easy life. But even without delving into concerns that will be raised by human rights campaigners, it is flawed in several ways.

Bans in prisons overseas have thrown up many unintended consequences. These flow from the fact that as many as two-thirds of prisoners smoke, far more than the general populace.

Smoking has traditionally been an integral part of prison culture, not least as a reliever of boredom and the stresses of being incarcerated. This makes quitting harder for inmates than people on the outside. When they are deprived of tobacco, a black market, with its associated problems, is inevitable. At some time or other, prisoners, visitors and prison staff will all be caught smuggling and selling on this market.

Inmates coming off nicotine can also be very aggressive and unpredictable. Three weeks after Queensland's smoke-free Woodford Correctional Centre opened in 1997, the prisoners rioted and attempted to burn the complex down. A government inquiry found the smoking ban was partly to blame.

To try to avoid such occurrences in New Zealand, the ban's introduction is subject to a 12-month preparation plan. During that period, prisoners will be helped to quit smoking through "information, education on smoking and smoking cessation support". If applied seriously, that will involve significant spending and resourcing. There can be no guarantee of a high level of success.

An American study of people released from jails with smoking bans found 97 per cent took up the habit again within six months. Obviously, the quit programmes there were absent or ineffective. Nonetheless, the health benefits of a ban, which the minister chose to stress, should not be overstated.

The consequences need to be balanced against the reasons for the Government action. Clearly, neither prison officers nor non-smoking inmates should be exposed to second-hand smoke. The legal threat is real enough. But there are ways of mitigating that without incurring the costs and consequences of a total ban. It makes sense to allow prisoners to smoke in their cells, designated smoking zones or outdoor areas. In that context, the Government's decision to "double-bunk" inmates is not a complication. Smoking inmates simply need to be separated from non-smokers.

Such an approach also overcomes objections on the ground of human rights. Smoking has not been outlawed in the community, despite its known health risks, so it can be asked why it should be in prisons. As such, a ban could be seen as representing the erosion of another freedom of an already disenfranchised group. A partial ban, however, would go some way towards matching the situation in restaurants or offices, where smokers can go to an area where the practice is allowed.

Talk of human rights will cut no ice with those who favour any punitive measures in jail. They will also argue that a ban on smoking is a deterrent to crime. That may have happened in the peculiar case of the Isle of Man, but there is little other evidence to support the contention. Indeed, given the malign consequences and additional resourcing, a total ban has all the appearance of a sledge hammer being used to crack a relatively minor nut. A less draconian response would be more logical.