Rutherford, Sumner, other jails allow e-cigarettes
Brian Haas, email@example.com 10:31 p.m. CDT May 4, 2014
The image of Paul Newman as the rebellious inmate in “Cool Hand Luke,” cigarette dangling from his lips, is as iconic as it is outdated, because most jails banned tobacco decades ago.
But the new crop of so-called “e-cigarettes” may change that.
Jails in Tennessee — including Sumner and Rutherford counties — are allowing inmates to smoke electronic cigarettes behind bars to help pacify what can be a rowdy population, but also as a revenue source. These disposable e-cigarettes, which usually cost the inmates between $9 and $15 each, contain no tobacco but instead use a low-voltage battery to deliver the key chemical in cigarettes, nicotine, while emitting only water vapor.
The Tennessee Department of Correction does not allow e-cigarettes in prison. But e-cigarettes behind bars are growing increasingly common across the country, and at least five Tennessee counties have allowed them into their jails. E-cigarette companies have begun exhibiting at Tennessee Sheriffs Association conferences, promising a cash cow for jails.
“Earn $1000s for your jail,” read one sign at the group’s summer 2013 conference, from a company called Precision Vapor.
Sumner County on April 11 began allowing jail inmates to order e-cigarettes, for $14.45 a pop (including shipping), directly from a Georgia-based company called JailCigs. Each one provides about 500 puffs, or the equivalent of two to three packs of cigarettes. A typical pack of cigarettes goes for around $6 in Tennessee.
For every e-cigarette sold, JailCigs places $5 in Sumner County’s general fund.
Sonya Troutt, the Sumner County Sheriff’s Office’s jail administrator, said she was convinced by JailCigs, along with other jails’ experiences, that such a move could cut down on tension and contraband.
“After speaking to some of the other jails, they felt like it had reduced stress levels for some of the inmates, especially some of the smokers,” she said. “I just felt like all around it would be much better and hopefully cut down on the smuggling of tobacco products and other contraband.”
JailCigs, which advertises that it sells only to jails, could not be reached for comment.
Sumner County inmate Bryan Neuendorf, 45, is serving a one-year theft sentence and says the jail atmosphere has already changed.
“You could see an immediate difference,” he said. “Everybody talked more to each other, there was a little more laughter. You could see the stress of jail melt away a little bit.”
Many inmates go to jail addicted to cigarettes. But with tobacco banned, some inmates can become anxious or testy because of nicotine withdrawal. Neuendorf said e-cigarettes are helping inmates to avoid such withdrawal. He even hopes to use e-cigarettes to wean himself off of cigarettes altogether by the time he’s released, by slowly reducing his usage.
Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold implemented e-cigarettes late last year through JailCigs and said there has been a drop in fights at the jail.
“We thought this would be a good tool to help inmates who are addicted to nicotine,” Arnold said. “When they come to the jail, they are anxious. They tend to be short-tempered. The e-cigarettes allow them to still have nicotine and not be as short-tempered.”
Davidson, Williamson jails just say no
But the promise of calmer inmates and more revenue doesn’t have everyone convinced.
Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall said money should never be a motivation in a jail setting.
He said he’d rather pacify inmates through rehabilitation or education.
“I don’t see enough reasons to do it,” he said.
Sharon Puckett, spokeswoman for the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, said e-cigarettes are not allowed in their jail, either.
“It’s strictly safety and security and not on the allowed list for inmates,” she said.
Alex Friedmann, a vocal watchdog on incarceration issues, said he opposes e-cigarettes too, from an addiction standpoint.
“My personal position is that jails don’t need to be in the business of encouraging addictive behaviors,” Friedmann said.
“E-cigarettes deliver nicotine just like regular cigarettes, only without the smoke (and arguably without the health problems). But they are still nicotine delivery systems, and nicotine is extremely addictive. Comparably, jails are not providing alcohol to alcoholics or meth to meth addicts.”