Smoking is to be banned in all prisons in England and Wales in a move that runs the risk of rioting by inmates, The Times has reported – one former prisoner said the risk of riots and unrest was very real.

A pilot project barring lighting up in all parts of jails, including exercise yards, will begin in spring next year. It will then be introduced in other prisons during a 12-month period.

Those in the South West, including Exeter and Eastwood Park Women’s Prison, will pilot the ban on all tobacco products.

The rule change comes after a campaign by staff and amid fears that the Prison Service could face compensation claims from officers who claim that they are exposed to passive smoking. It has the potential to destabilise prisons, where being able to enjoy a cigarette helps prisoners through the boredom of their sentences.

About 80 per cent of the 84,300 inmates smoke and tobacco is a valuable currency that is traded on the wings.

Prisoners are expected to be offered nicotine patches to help them to cope with withdrawal symptoms.

One prison source said of the timetable for imposing the ban: “I am not sure it is the right time. Everything in jails is extremely stretched and more job losses are coming.”

Senior prison staff were told of the decision this month.

A letter sent to them headed “Smoke Free Prisons” 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.”

The letter said that as a first step a number of establishments in the South West “will become early adopters of the scheme”.

They would implement a complete ban on all tobacco products in late March or early April next year.

The letter warned that the ban would only be implemented in the pilot jails when the public health authorities and the Prison Service were satisfied that they were fully prepared.

An evaluation of the pilot scheme would be followed by the introduction of the smoking ban throughout all prisons during 12 months, the letter added.

Prison officers’ leaders gave their full support to the plan but admitted that it could provoke disturbances among inmates.

Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, said: “We welcome this move. 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 introducing the ban throughout the prison system would be difficult, adding: “There is no pretending otherwise. It could cause disturbances but they have done it successfully in Canada and in young offender institutions in England and Wales.”

Mr Gillan warned that without a smoking ban, the Prison Service risked legal action from a non-smoking prisoner who had been put in a cell with a smoker, or from a member of staff saying they were a victim of passive smoking.

Earlier this year the prison service dropped a three-month pilot scheme to ban smoking in jails in the South West amid fears that it would provoke trouble at a time when there was a review of prisoners’ privileges.

Senior officials made clear in private that the long-term aim was to ban smoking in jails for health and safety reasons.

Smoking in prisons has been restricted since the general ban on cigarettes in enclosed public places came into force in 2007, but inmates are allowed to smoke in their own cell because it has been designated “their permanent or temporary home”.

Officers are advised to check whether an inmate is smoking before entering a cell. In some cases they are advised to wait until the smoke has cleared before going in. Prisoners are banned from smoking in workshops, education classes and on the wings but some can light up when outdoors in the exercise yard.

Phil Wheatley, when he was director-general of the Prison Service, warned MPs in 2005 that a ban could backfire.

“You don’t have a lot going for you in prison,” he said. “You are deprived of most things you might ordinarily enjoy . . . To take yet another thing away will not be wildly popular with a group who are not always charming and pleasant in their behaviour.”

He added: “I would expect to find there was an increase in incidents of assaults on staff. We do need to make sure that we do not cause significant problems for disturbed people arriving with us with already a multitude of problems.”

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.”

Mark Leech editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners said the risk of unrest ‘was very real” but added it could be successfully managed if done properly – but now he said was not the time.

“The health benefits of a smoke-free prison environment are undoubted and unquestioned – the problem comes with enforcing the change and thereby creating yet another form of black market currency inside our jails which leads to assaults, bullying and self-harm.

“The time to do this is not now, we have seen too much change inside our prisons.”