• Tobacco ban led to numerous inmates suddenly converting to Christianity.
  • Push for smoke-free prisons already being blamed for rise in violence and self-harm in some jails.

The chaplain of a prison in Wiltshire is ditching his current Bibles for ones made of thicker paper –because inmates keep using the pages as makeshift cigarettes following a smoking ban.

The lengths prisoners will go to feed their habit comes as more than half of jails in England and Wales have banned smoking.

In some jails the measure is feared to have fuelled record levels of violence and self-harm behind bars, as well as pushing tobacco consumption to the black market, where an ounce can fetch up to £150 (€168).

Sheila Kimmins, chairwoman of Erlestoke prison's independent monitoring board, praised the way the ban had been introduced at the category C men's jail she covers.

But she told IBTimes UK a curious side- effect was inmates suddenly turning to Christianity.

"Our chaplain has had many conversions because they wanted the Bibles for roll-ups," she said.

"The Bibles come with very thin paper .. prisoners know how to play the system. The chaplain has now had to find Bibles made of reconstituted paper."

She added of the smoking ban: "It has been a good thing but ironically tobacco has now become a source of currency. It has taken over from [synthetic high] Spice as a currency."

It comes after fire concerns were raised earlier this year in non-smoking prisons because inmates were finding evermore imaginative alternatives to cigarettes.

In Exeter, prisoners had apparently mixed tea leaves with film scraped from nicotine patches, then tried to smoke the substance. Similarly, at HMP Channings Wood, a report from an unannounced inspection found: "Prisoners made a number of improvised cigarettes by rolling dried grass, tea and a range of other matter in thin paper torn from books."

The report added: "We [inspectors] were told that there was a shortage of kettles; although there was an almost constant requisition order for replacements, we saw many kettles in which the flex had been cut to provide a spark to light illicit 'cigarettes' following the imposition of the establishment-wide smoking ban."

Kimmins said while the smoking ban may have "contributed" to unrest in HMP Erlestoke – there was a riot within three weeks of the ban being implemented in May 2016 – she said the picture was more complicated.

She added one issue had been overcrowding in other prisons, which had meant Erlestoke had been inundated with more violent category B inmates.

Harmful effects of smoking ban

The smoking ban began being implemented across prisons last year to reduce health risks of second-hand smoke, with inmates offered nicotine patches, e-cigarettes and behavioural support to help them overcome their cravings.

Some 66 jails in England and Wales – including high-security prisons – have so far become non-smoking, with the government saying all jails will eventually be smoke-free.

By the prison service's own admission, the ban was always going to have to be rolled out with extra care, especially given that an estimated 80% of adult inmates at the time smoked tobacco.

However, prison officials deny the measure has been the "causal factor" in recent violent disturbances, including riots.

But reports from prison watchdogs have already begun to warn the measure may be fuelling disorder, self-harm and a black market that can leave inmates in debt.

The independent monitoring board at HMP Parc in south Wales said that while the smoking ban had been well managed, it had discovered tobacco was still entering the jail as contraband and that smokers were being exploited by sellers.

"The board is concerned that the smoking ban might be a factor in increased incidents of self-harm and violence," its report this year said.

A recent report on Littlehey prison near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, also said that an increase in violent incidents "may be a longer term reaction to the introduction of the no-smoking policy".

And a seven-hour riot at HMP Birmingham in September saw inmates chant "we want burn" – prison slang for tobacco.

A spokeswoman for the prison service said: "We have long been committed to a smoke-free prison estate and this is being phased in over a long period of time.

"This phased introduction will reduce the risk to staff and prisoners of exposure to second-hand smoke and prisons will only become smoke-free when it is appropriate to do so."

Steve Gillen, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, told The Times that the introduction had gone well so far and that the increase in violence was a result of there being too few members of staff on the wings.

Other countries, including Canada and New Zealand, have already made the transition to smoke-free prisons.