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Vaping in jail

Not sure how I feel about this.

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.

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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.”

Out of curiosity, I sent an email to Alan Bernstein, the Director of Public Affairs for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, to inquire about their policies on e-cigarettes. Here’s what he sent me:

The Harris County Jail, the state’s largest, does not allow inmate use of e-cigarettes because of the negative health effects of nicotine, the potential for these items to be traded among inmates as “currency” and the potential for misuse of the lithium battery and vaporizing function of the items. We are not aware of any vendors approaching our staff to discuss adding e-cigs to our list of inmate commissary products.

As noted before, my main concern is that the health effects of e-cigarettes are not well understood at this time. If they turn out to be helpful in getting people to quit tobacco and they don’t have any harmful effects of their own, then I can see the merit in this, though Bernstein’s point about the potential for misuse is well taken. The bit about e-cigarette sales being helpful to counties with tight budgets and “easing the burden” on taxpayers, however, makes me queasy in the same way that expanded gambling does. Being dependent on a potentially volatile income stream that is in turn highly dependent on the habits – in many cases, addictions – of a small number of mostly vulnerable people but which is invisible to most everyone else strikes me as bad public policy, one that comes with a built-in set of skewed incentives. Maybe I’m wrong – maybe e-cigarettes don’t have much in common with the tobacco kind – but until we know that I’m very skeptical of this.

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