Two counties in Illinois are now allowing inmates to use e-cigarettes while locked up. Other counties could follow suit.


SPRINGFIELD — After years of banning inmates from smoking cigarettes, two Illinois counties are allowing jail inmates to use the electronic version while they are stuck behind bars.

Just weeks after White County officials signed a deal with a distributor to provide the nicotine-infused vapor inhalers at the lockup in Carmi, the Saline County Sheriff's Department has joined what could be a growing trend.

Williamson County officials say they have been approached about stocking their jail commissary with the product but haven't yet decided whether they will participate.

And Franklin and Wabash counties also are considering making e-cigarettes available.

However, Quad-City area jails are not open to the prospect of e-cigarettes. 

"We went to a no-smoking policy close to 20 years ago and we're not going to deviate from that," said Rock Island County Sheriff Jeff Boyd. "There could just be too many issues with people not able to afford them while others may have them. There could be fights over them."

Scott County Sheriff Dennis Conard was more blunt.

"Not any way in hell are we going to allow those," Conard said.

Among the problems that could arise one stood out, he said. "If you have a battery, you have a fire source, which is a safety issue."

The push by e-cigarette manufacturers comes as jails in other states already have embraced the sale of the battery-powered vapor inhalers to prisoners as a way to raise money for jail programs and reduce attempts by inmates to smuggle tobacco products into jail.

"I think it's a trend all counties will eventually adopt," White County jail administrator Randy Cobb said.

In Saline County, the experiment is in its third week. Jail administrator Brian Bennett said there have not been any problems at the jail in Harrisburg.

"Initially, I was against it," Bennett said. "But I haven't seen any issues with it so far."

In Williamson County, Sheriff's Department Capt. Gary Tyner said a distributor recently made a pitch to supply e-cigarettes and left some samples behind for employees to use.

"We just haven't decided what to do yet," Tynor said.

In White County, Cobb said the experiment is going smoothly.

"It definitely slowed our contraband," Cobb said. "And the morale of inmates is up."

The expansion of e-cigarettes into county jails comes just months after anti-smoking groups heralded the signing of a law by Gov. Pat Quinn that bans the sale of the products to minors.

The American Lung Association in Illinois said Tuesday it was "deeply troubled" by the use of e-cigarettes as a money-maker for the jails.

For now, the trend appears unlikely to spread into the massive state prison system, where smoking is banned.

Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer said the agency has a blanket policy barring the product from being sold at prison commissaries.