As a way to allow some inmates to get their nicotine fix and sheriffs to shore up tight budgets, county jails across the country have begun selling electronic cigarettes. Though the trend has largely bypassed Texas, jail officials say that could change as sheriffs begin to warm up to the smokeless technology.
While traditional cigarettes are banned from most jails, vendors of e-cigarettes, which vaporize a liquid solution for inhalation, see a big market in Texas. The 245 jails regulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards have a combined capacity of about 95,000.
Shannon Herklotz, the commission’s assistant director, said he knew of only two county jails in Texas that allowed electronic cigarettes. But more sheriffs, primarily in rural counties with smaller facilities, have expressed a cautious interest in selling them, asking questions about the technology, he said.
“It’s not that it’s not allowed. It’s up to each individual sheriff,” said Herklotz, who supports banning e-cigarettes to prevent issues with contraband at jails. With county jails facing budget shortfalls, e-cigarette vendors are pushing their products as a way for sheriffs to supplement revenue and help inmates suffering from withdrawal.
“I’m still not in Texas, but I’d like to be,” said John Vanderveer, owner of JailCigs, an e-cigarette vendor based in Georgia. He said he and other e-cigarette salesmen had paid a fee to pitch their products to Texas officials and others at the National Sheriffs’ Association annual conference in Fort Worth last month.
One vendor, Precision Vapor, recently began selling e-cigarettes to the Titus County Jail in Northeast Texas.
“It was at the request of inmates that we started selling them,” said Michael Garcia, a lieutenant at the jail, which sells the item from its commissary. “The inmates report that they feel more at ease and not as nervous,” he said. “They don’t have the agitation of going from two packs a day to zero.”
The jail, which has an average daily population of about 110 inmates, buys each e-cigarette for $3 and sells about 80 a week at $6 apiece, Garcia said. That profit helps pay for inmate uniforms and other supplies, which “eases the burden of the taxpayers.”
Brian McGiverin, a prisoner rights lawyer at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that most jails strictly banned tobacco but that sheriffs were likely to view e-cigarettes more favorably because they are less of a fire hazard than traditional cigarettes.
“It doesn’t seem like a terrible idea, setting aside the idea of whether it’s a smart idea to smoke in the first place,” he said. “The people are buying it, so that means it’s something that they want.”
Some worry that selling the e-cigarettes out of commissaries could lead to inequity among inmates. Fred Thomas, a spokesman for the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, which this year banned e-cigarettes, said he was concerned about fights “between the ones that have it and the ones that don’t have it and want it.”
Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, which advocates inmates' rights, did not address e-cigarettes specifically but said commissaries sold most items at “absurd, gouging markups.”
Vendors say they are servicing a growing demand and have no input into the prices that jails charge.
Bill Anderson, owner of Precision Vapor, said his company had been in contact with other Texas sheriffs, but declined to provide specifics. He said e-cigarette use would increase in jails because the number of consumers outside has continued to rise.
“It’s very popular,” he said, “and it’s spread out.”
For now, most Texas sheriffs remain cautious. James Campbell, the Cherokee County sheriff, said he would consider e-cigarettes, but was apprehensive that inmates could find a way to abuse them.
“Jury’s still out right now,” he said. “I’m not going to say we won’t change later on, but right now, we’re waiting to see what kinds of problems, if any, other jails may be having.”