E-cigarette sales raised more than $17,000 in less than two months after being introduced to inmates at the Tulsa Jail, records show, representing more than 12 percent of commissary sales during that timeframe.
Traditional cigarettes are prohibited in most Oklahoma jails leaving many inmates who were smokers on the outside without a way to get their nicotine fix. Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered smoking devices often designed to look like traditional cigarettes. When smoked, they emit vapor containing nicotine.
Prior to their introduction to inmates here, Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office Spokeswoman Casey Roebuck said TCSO had polled other jails where e-cigarettes were sold, and found the program “had been really successful.”
In August, the Tulsa Jail contracted with a company called “eCig4inmate” to sell the smokeless electronic devices in the jail.
“Are you looking for a new way to make revenue for your facility?,” eCig4inmate asks on the company website. “Our current customers can attest to the amounts of $ MONEY $ they are making.”
True to form, e-cigarettes immediately became one of the most popular items in the jail after sales began, records show.
Sales of the e-cigarettes began Sept. 16, and 1,776 of the devices were sold between that date and Nov. 9, according to Tulsa Jail Commissary data provided to The Frontier earlier this month.
The devices come in three “flavors” — regular, menthol and mixed berry. Menthol was the most popular of the three variations, selling 699 devices in less than two months, followed by mixed berry (672) and regular (405.)
The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office pays $2.05 for each individual e-cigarette, then sells them for either $11.99 for the mixed berry and menthol variations, and $12.01 for regular, records show.
That markup is the highest among the commissary items costing more than a dollar.
The e-cigarette sales are one of a handful of ways the Tulsa Jail has sought to mend the money problems that have plagued it for years. State law requires money raised by commissary sales be spent on inmates — purchasing blankets, clothes, etc. — so any increase in commissary sales can help solve funding problems.
“We are still monitoring the program closely,” Sheriff Vic Regalado said in a statement. “Sales have been steady. We will continue to evaluate the market and if necessary make changes or adjustments that are beneficial to the inmates and the David L. Moss justice center.”
Around the same time, jail officials also changed their visitation program in order to save money.
For years the jail offered in-person visitation six days each week, and county officials said they often saw more than 300 visitors per day stream in and out of the jail.
Jail officials in August announced new visitation rules — in-person visits would only happen two times a week, and visitors would be limited to parents, spouses and children. Everyone else would have to use a video visitation system at a cost of 50 cents per minute.
That change lowered costs — the jail no longer had to staff security for six days of visits — and raised money through use of the HomeWAV video visitation system. While it’s unclear how much money the staffing changes saved, the profits were immediate.
In the three months prior to the change, which resulted in thousands more uses of the paid HomeWAV system, the jail raised an average of $29,933.83 per month in HomeWAV calls.
In August and September, after the changes went into effect, the jail averaged $41,626.75 per month.
In October the jail announced a pricing change. HomeWAV calls in the jail lobby would remain free (the lobby has seldom been used since August, records show,) but video visits either through the smartphone app or through a computer would cost only 20 cents per minute.
And though there were only 13,377 uses of the HomeWAV system via the app or a home computer in October — compared to an average of 16,260 in the two previous months — the video visits still raised $36,821 that month, nearly $7,000 more than the average of the three months prior to the visitation change.