Jails Sell E-Cigarettes to Boost Revenue

May 5, 2014 AT 11:20 AM

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of Paul Newman as the rebellious inmate in “Cool Hand Luke,” cigarette dangling from his lips, is as iconic as it is outdated, because most jails banned tobacco decades ago.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.”

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