Looking to grow revenue, Tulsa Jail considers selling e-cigarettes to inmates

"A large percentage of these offenders are smokers or smokeless tobacco users. That being said, you have that addiction. The ability to get some nicotine does take the edge off." - Washita County Jail administrator Erick Payne.

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An inmate smokes an e-cigarette in the Rogers County jail. NEWSON6

As Tulsa’s jail looks for ways to grow revenue — including recent changes to the visitation system — it’s geared to welcome a new device: electronic cigarettes.

Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Roebuck said although the idea is in its early stages, e-cigarette sales are expected to raise a “good amount of revenue.”

The sheriff’s office polled 12 Oklahoma jails that either intend to add e-cigarettes to their commissaries or are currently selling them, Roebuck said.

“It’s been really successful,” she said of the jails that already sell electronic cigarettes.

Last month, sheriff’s office officials announced the jail’s on-site visitation was being reduced from six days each week to two, as apart of a push toward a video-visitation system.

The system allows inmates to talk to anyone for 50 cents a minute through a smartphone app or home computer.

Roebuck told The Frontier earlier this week the sheriff’s office is negotiating to lower the charge to 20 cents per minute. However, that proposal has not yet gone before the Board of County Commissioners.

Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered smoking devices often designed to look like traditional cigarettes. When smoked, they emit vapor containing nicotine.

Across the nation, jails are increasingly adding e-cigarettes to their commissaries. In most prisons and jails, traditional cigarettes are prohibited. But electronic cigarette sales are giving sheriffs the opportunity to take on budget shortfalls and help keep inmates in need of a nicotine-fix content. 

In Washita County, jail administrator Erick Payne said the 85-inmate jail has been selling electronic cigarettes for about two years. Thirty e-cigarettes or more are sold at $12.50 a piece each week.

“It does generate some revenue, but I wouldn’t say it makes a ton of money,” Payne said. “But we’re a lot smaller of a facility than Tulsa.”

Tulsa’s Jail holds around 1,800 inmates.

And, Payne said, there’s another benefit to selling electronic cigarettes to inmates: they can help keep the peace.

“A large percentage of these offenders are smokers or smokeless tobacco users,” Payne said. “That being said, you have that addiction. The ability to get some nicotine does take the edge off.”

The prices for e-cigarettes in jails varies. In Dewey County, inmates pay $14.29 for each e-cigarette, while in McClain County they cost $9.82.

Electronic cigarettes are prohibited in Oklahoma prisons, said Mark Myers, Department of Corrections spokesman.

Next week, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office will seek to begin the bidding process before the Board of County Commissioners.

The request to advertise for bids calls for proposals from the company ecig4inmate or a similar provider.

On its website, ecig4inmate touts e-cigarettes as a money-maker in the corrections industry. The Nevada-based company states its e-cigarettes are designed specifically for inmates.

Roebuck said allowing e-cigarette sales also can help cut down on contraband.

They (inmates) will make a cigarette out of toilet paper,” she said. “So it’s better to give them e-cigarettes then them making something unhealthy.”

Push to video visitation should be financial boon to cash-strapped Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Contact: Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044.
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