Vaping popularity has skyrocketed in UK prisons, with more than 65,000 device and e-liquid sales each week.
It is estimated that 33,000 prisoners now get their nicotine fix from e-cigarettes after the Ministry of Justice permitted inmates to vape in their cells.
Vaping is seen as something of a compromise for prisoners after the government banned smoking last year. This ban led to a sharp increase in the number of mini riots and incidents of violence in prisons.
A Prison Service spokesperson told the Metro newspaper: “All closed prisons in England and Wales are now smoke free reducing the risk of second-hand smoke to prisoners and staff.
“Prisoners have been given support in quitting smoking if they need it including vapes, e-cigarettes and nicotine replacement therapy.”
Research shows that anger can be a side-effect of nicotine withdrawal and official figures reflect this, showing an increase in assaults on prisoners and staff after the prison ban.
One recently released inmate of Foston Hall Prison told the Metro: “I could not have done my two month sentence without my vape, I saw how bad it was when the smoking ban came in last year and when I had to go back in I was dreading craving a burn.
“However, I got a vaping machine and it made my sentence a lot easier.”
“We want burn”
Riots were staged across the country in 2017, when the Ministry of Justice began phasing out tobacco in correctional facilities.
Inmates reportedly started fires and two were injured during two days of chaos in September last year when a smoking ban was introduced in a Liverpool jail.
There were also outbreaks of violence at HMP Cardiff and HMP Birmingham jails, with prisoners in the latter institution chanting “we want burn,” which is prison slang for tobacco.
The UK government outlawed smoking in offices, bars and other public places in 2007, but prisons were largely exempt from the ban. Most inmates in England and Wales were allowed to light up in their cells until last year.
The Prison Service confirmed its intention to make all prisons smoke-free environments, but stressed that total smoking bans would only be implemented when it was safe to do so.
With 80% of the male prison population thought to be smokers, it may come as little surprise that the ban led to some riots.
Nicotine patches, tea leaves and synthetic cannabis
Before e-cigarettes were widely available in prisons, the smoking ban drove some smokers to desperation.
An independent report from a prison in Wales, which outlawed smoking 2016, found that the tobacco ban lead to an increase in prisoners smoking ‘frankenstein cigarettes’ made from nicotine patches, tea leaves and a type of synthetic cannabis called Spice.
Following a trial in Welsh prisons, the Prison Service has started promoting the sale of electric cigarettes in prisons in a bid to wean inmates of tobacco.
A report from Public Health England North West said: “Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service have agreed to make the rechargeable vaping devices piloted in Wales available across the whole estate, including within the Long Term High Security and Women’s prisons.”
“Major success story”
In another trial on the Isle of Man, a small island state off the coast of Britain, a prison e-cig scheme improved behavior and helped more inmates quit smoking.
A 2008 ban on smoking in Isle of Man prisons led to inmates smoking ‘illicit materials’ like nicotine patches and tea bags.
Before the scheme was introduced, prisons had suffered more than 800 power cuts as inmates used kettles and plug sockets to light homemade cigarettes.
The six-month pilot scheme, which forced prisoners to work to pay for their e-cigs, lead to a 42% drop on offender adjudications and a 58% drop in behavior warnings.
It also lead to a sharp increase in the number of offenders seeking stop-smoking support, reduced cell power outages by 50% and created a cost saving of £8,500 as other nicotine replacement therapies, like nicotine patches, were phased out.
Prison governor Bob McColm said the pilot has been a “major success story“.
In the United States, smoking is effectively banned in all federal prisons and many other correctional facilities, but some state prisons still permit inmates to smoke outside.