After about four weeks of selling e-cigarettes to inmates at the Gage County Detention Center, Sheriff Millard “Gus” Gustafson didn’t expect a flood of opinions on the matter.
Following discussions about whether or not to allow inmates to purchase and use the vapor-based nicotine inhalants on Friday, however, the issue has generated more discussions locally as well as across the state and nation, even finding its way into the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog Monday.
On Tuesday, Gustafson spoke before the Gage County Board of Supervisors about selling e-cigarettes to inmates and allowing them to be puffed within the walls of the county jail.
E-cigarettes are plastic tubes the shape and size of a rolled cigarette which carry nicotine into the lungs through water vapor rather than smoke. Each e-cigarette carries approximately the same nicotine as one pack of regular cigarettes.
Gustafson learned about e-cigarettes when the county was negotiating a contract for housing prisoners with Washington County, Kan. in November.
The Washington County jail administrator said the county has not had any problems with the e-cigarettes to date.
The Gage County Sheriff’s Office later purchased 100 e-cigarettes for inmates and more than half have already been scooped up by the inmates, who can buy four and use one at any time.
Jail administrator Lt. Tony Shepardson said the e-cigarettes were “selling like hotcakes” during the law enforcement committee meeting last week, helping to pacify the inmates and improving the safety of corrections staff.
Gage County banned smoke and smokeless tobacco products on all county property and in county vehicles in August 2007, while a proposed ban of vapor or e-cigarettes has been added to a revised draft of the county employee handbook.
Gustafson said the proposed policy change spurred him to bring it before the county board to seek a recommendation on how to proceed, saying the e-cigarettes both calmed some prisoners going through withdrawals while also providing a financial incentive for the county.
Supervisor Gary Lytle, the county’s law enforcement committee chairman, said Gustafson has authority to run the jail as he sees fit and the law enforcement committee left it to the sheriff to decide how to move forward.
But the other six supervisors split over whether the e-cigarettes should be commissary items or even allowed on county property at all.
“I think it shouldn’t be totally in Gus’ ballpark,” Supervisor Dennis Byars, a cancer survivor himself, said. “We as a county regulate smoking on all of our properties -- this is our property, not Gus’ property.”
Byars was also critical of the idea of generating income from inmates purchasing e-cigarettes, saying it was “the wrong thing for Gage County to say this is appropriate.”
The county purchases the e-cigarettes for $2.55 per tube and sells them to inmates for $7 each. The money is funneled back into the county’s general fund.
“I think having an e-cigarette and having any influence of tobacco or nicotine in that jail is a horrible, terrible thing to do,” Byars said. “It’s not good for anybody’s health, the smoker, it’s not good for the people who are around.”
Supervisor Kathy Setzer, who is coordinating the county employees' handbook revision, said although inmates do not fall under the employee handbook she believed it was not right for the county to sell e-cigarettes to inmates.
“They are in jail and I know this probably makes it easier for your jailers, but we are not in the business to make things more comfortable for people that are in jail,” she said. “If we don’t allow our employees to use them on our property and we don’t allow the public to use them on our property, why are we allowing the prisoners to use them on our property."
Supervisor Terry Jurgens said the county jail “is not the Hilton” and that he did not have a problem with inmates smoking e-cigarettes, while Supervisor John Hill, a retired pharmacist, said he is concerned about a potential abuse of the e-cigarettes with other contraband smuggled into the jail.
Hill also said ex-smokers could be affected by allowing the e-cigarettes into the jail.
“I have real concerns with ex-smokers being next to somebody,” Hill said. “That urge to smoke does not go away, people tell me. People will give you their quit day from 30 years ago, but tell you if they picked up a cigarette, they’d probably smoke it.”