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Jails Market Electronic Cigarettes to Prisoners

Jail administrators have found a new revenue stream: exploiting prisoners’ addiction to nicotine by selling them electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, for a substantial profit.

Even as municipalities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles enact restrictions on the sale of e-cigarettes, county jails across the country are peddling the nicotine vapor devices to prisoners. The profit margins on such sales can be as high as 400 percent.

At the Macon County Jail in Tennessee, Sheriff Mark Gammons buys Marlboro or menthol flavored e-cigarettes at $2.75 each, then resells them for $10. He said he had “taken pains” to not encourage smoking among prisoners, but budget problems led him to market e-cigarettes. He hopes to make $20,000 to $50,000 the first year, which will be used to increase the wages of jail staff; his guards earn a top salary of $10.58 an hour. “I just want my boys to make as much as they can,” Gammons said.

E-cigarettes use a small battery to heat a solution which produces a water vapor that is inhaled. Nicotine is the most popular additive. Manufacturers have noticed the trend of selling e-cigarettes to prisoners and now produce plastic, non-reusable versions that are deemed “jail-safe.” Jails in at least seven states sell the devices at prices ranging from $8 to $30. Since most jails ban smoking, electronic cigarettes have proven popular among prisoners who crave a nicotine fix.

In September 2013, 40 state Attorneys General sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), urging it to regulate e-cigarettes in the same manner as regular cigarettes. The FDA is expected to announce some type of regulation in the near future.

Millard “Gus” Gustafson, the Sheriff of Gage County, Nebraska, said he was happy to offer e-cigarettes to prisoners. “I look at this as something to control their moods. And so if they’re not a good boy or girl, I’m going to take them away, just like I do with the TVs.” Gustafson said he sold out of the first 200 e-cigarettes he bought for his jail.

Not everyone is supportive of the trend. “I think having an e-cigarette and having any influence of tobacco or nicotine in that jail is a horrible, terrible thing to do,” remarked Gage County Supervisor Dennis Byars.

The American Lung Association said it was “deeply troubled” by the practice of using e-cigarettes as a moneymaker for jails. And Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, noted that selling e-cigarettes was just another way to monetize the corrections system, and feeding prisoners’ addiction to nicotine doesn’t help them. “I think the fact remains [that] prisoners with other addictions, such as alcohol addiction, the jail is not providing [them] with beer and whiskey,” he said. “Prisoners with substance abuse addictions, such as Oxycodone, the jail is not providing them with that.”

In October 2013, two Illinois counties – White and Saline – began selling e-cigarettes to prisoners in their jails. “I think it’s a trend all counties will eventually adopt,” stated White County jail administrator Randy Cobb.

Thus far, no state prison systems are offering e-cigarettes.


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