Smoking could be banned across all prisons in England and Wales by 2015, amid fears that prisoners could begin rioting over the change.
The smoking ban introduced in England in 2007 restricted smoking in prisons but allowed inmates to smoke cigarettes in their cells. A pilot project would prevent this and smoking in all parts of the prison, including the exercise yard.
The move is believed to be linked to a campaign led by staff from the Prison Officer's Association, who are concerned about suffering the effects of passive smoking.
The group began campaigning for a smoking ban in all prisons in 2007 after the it was introduced across workplaces and enclosed public spaces in England and Wales. The ban did not apply to prisoners smoking in their cells however, as these spaces were considered their "domestic premises".
The rule change will affect 80 per cent of the 84,300 inmates who smoke whilst serving their sentence, leading to fears of rioting from prisoners, who will be offered nicotine patches to cope with withdrawal symptoms.
One prison source warned: “I am not sure it is the right time. Everything in jails is extremely stretched and more job losses are coming.”
Mark Johnson, chief executive of the ex-offender charity User Voice argued that smoking in prison is a human right". He added that inmates who smoke could take legal action against the ban, according to the Telegraph.
A document addressed to senior prison staff and seen by The Times said: “You will no doubt be aware that the decision has been made that the time is right for the prison estate to adopt a tobacco and smoke-free policy to provide a smoke-free workplace/environment for our staff and prisoners.”
It went on to say that the prisons involved in the pilot scheme would be selected from the South West and will include Exeter and Eastwood Park Women's Prison. The ban will be implemented in the chosen pilot jails when health authorities and the Prison Service considered them to be ready for the change, the letter added.
The ban will then be implemented across all prisons gradually over a 12 month period.
Steve Gillan, general secretary of the POA, told The Times they welcomed the news. "It is our policy to have smoke-free prisons for our members. We will work with the ministry to make sure it works effectively.”
He said that although introducing the ban among prisoners could be difficult, it had been successfully implemented in prisons across Canada and young offenders institutes in England and Wales.
But Andrew Neilson, from campaign charity the Howard League for Penal Reform, said prisons could be put under huge pressure when the policy is introduced.
Speaking to the BBC, he said: “Prisons are going through unprecedented budget cuts, prison resources, staff resources have been cut, there may well be good intentions behind this policy proposal, but it will undoubtedly put a lot of pressure on jails which are already pretty stretched.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We are considering banning smoking across the prison estate and as part of this are looking at possible sites as early adopters.”