Unicoi sheriff proposes selling e-cigarettes to inmates at jail

Brad Hicks • Oct 28, 2013 at 10:04 PM

ERWIN — Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley is an ex-smoker.

Because of this, Hensley said he fully understands the effect a lack of nicotine can have on one craving a puff.

“I remember years ago, if I didn’t have a cigarette, I was on the way to the store to get a cigarette,” he said. “I got ill when I didn’t have a cigarette.”

In Unicoi County, like other counties throughout the country, there is a portion of the smoking population that no longer has access to cigarettes. However, the Unicoi County Commission will consider an agreement today that may allow the Sheriff’s Department to sell electronic cigarettes to inmates housed in the county Jail in downtown Erwin and the jail annex.

While Hensley said it is “common knowledge” that smoking in jail facilities is prohibited, he said many agencies, including Carter County, are providing inmates with access to electronic cigarettes. Hensley said a significant percentage of Unicoi County’s inmate population is tobacco users.

“I have talked to other sheriffs about this that already have it in place, and they have told me it does calm the inmates down,” he said.

Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, are “metal or plastic battery-powered devices resembling traditional cigarettes that heat a liquid nicotine solution, creating vapor that users inhale,” an Associated Press article said.

The benefits of the sheriff’s department selling electronic cigarettes would not end with combatting the occasional inmate “nic fit,” the sheriff said. Hensley said it could be a revenue-generating move for the county, as e-cigarettes acquired from a vendor could be sold by the sheriff’s department at a profit.

Hensley said an estimate of the revenue that could be garnered from the venture is unknown at this time, as the amount to charge inmates for the electronic cigarettes and other costs associated with the program require a little more research. In addition to this, Hensley said certain conditions must be met before the sheriff’s department can even start selling the devices.

First, the County Commission must lend its approval to the agreement that would allow the sheriff’s department to sell the cigarettes. This is the item to be considered today by the commission.

“Anything that we do anymore, whether we go with a vendor or whatever we do, we always get approval from the County Commission,” Hensley said.

But even the commission’s approval wouldn’t give the sheriff’s department the full go-ahead to begin selling e-cigarettes to inmates. Hensley said if the agreement is approved, the sheriff’s department must first allow a division of the Department of Human Services the opportunity to sell the electronic cigarettes in the county’s jails. If the agency chooses to do so, it will be responsible for overseeing the venture and proceeds would go to the department’s division. This would also prevent the sheriff’s department from being able to sell the e-cigarettes to county inmates.

If the department opts not to get into the electronic cigarette business, the sheriff’s department could then seek a vendor from which it would acquire the e-cigarettes to be sold to inmates.

County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said county officials hope to glean more information on the program at a work session held prior to today’s regular commission meeting.

“That will be discussed at our work session, and I imagine there will be some discussion at our regular meeting as well,” Rice said.

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