The New York Times recently published an interesting article, “In Rural Jails, E-Cigarettes Are a Calming Vapor.”
The article juxtaposes government and school bans of these smokeless devices that are rapidly appearing from coast to coast, with one unusual place they are being highly welcomed… the rural county jail.
While most prisons and jails prohibit the use of traditional cigarettes due to fire hazards and secondhand smoke, more and more sheriffs are opting to sell electronic cigarettes to their inmates for practical reasons. The biggest of which is to help control the mood swings of inmates going through nicotine withdrawal.
Evidently, in at least seven states, county jails have allowed the sale of a few flavors of e-cigarettes to inmates. Not surprisingly, electronic cigarettes now top the list of the most coveted items in jail commissaries.
Even though e-cigarettes are banned in federal prisons, both Chinese and American manufacturers have started producing a “jail-safe” device using plastic instead of metal. Any why not? The inmate market is a captive audience (pun intended).
One Sheriff in Nebraska uses them as incentives—those inmates who are not a good boy or girl get theirs taken away. In December he bought 200 for the 32-prisoner jail, and sold out by mid-January.
A Tennessee Sheriff’s motive for introducing them was to create additional revenues after several years of budget cuts.
His main goal is to create a pay raise for his guards who are overworked and earn a top salary of $10.58 per hour. He hopes to collect profits of between $20 and $50,000 from the sale of electronic cigarettes this year.
The popularity of the device has earned some jails profits of more than 400 percent per e-cig. They are sold to inmates for $8 to $30 apiece depending on the number of puffs generated. Profits go either into the county’s general fund or directly into the jail’s budget.
Regardless of all the unanswered questions concerning electronic cigarettes, their popularity has increased considerably in the past three years. According to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, the number of varieties has now exceeded 350 and sales globally are almost $2 billion.
Many of the county sheriffs extol e-cigarettes for the reduction in tension and outright violence among their inmates. When nerves are on edge, minor disagreements can escalate quickly and get physical, which endangers the safety of both the guards and inmates.
It would appear that in jails where they sell electronic cigarettes—allowing inmates to get their nicotine fix—there are fewer altercations.
The Nebraska Sheriff believes e-cigarettes have been influential in keeping his inmates calm and orderly. “The thing I like about it is it controls the guy,” he said. “We had four or five fights last week. One guy who’d had a fight asked for an e-cigarette and it calmed him down. It’s not meant to help inmates, it’s meant to help my guys.”
A Macon County chief deputy sheriff pointed out that the reduction in inmate fights after making e-cigarettes available had led to a reduction in trips to the hospital.
He said, “The cost of fixing a broken nose is $2,000, so I figure we’re saving the county some money.”