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The Potential and Pitfalls of Providing Vapes to Incarcerated People

How much good can vaping do in a carceral setting? Smoking rates in prisons and jails across the United States and the world are extremely high, yet the question gets little attention.

One briefing from the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium estimated the available research to show that at least 70 to 80 percent of the US incarcerated population smokes or has previously smoked. Other research has explored how high incarceration rates impact overall smoking rates among Black Americans. Internationally, prison and jail systems across the world show far higher smoking rates than among the non-incarcerated population.

Vapes, of course, have been estimated by the UK’s Royal College of Physicians to be 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes, and described as “far less harmful” by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

In the US, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) banned smoking in federal correctional facilities in 2015, having previously banned the sale of tobacco products in facility commissaries back in 2006. In addition, a 2019 briefing by the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation showed that states including Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, and Ohio have banned the use of all tobacco products by incarcerated people and staff in state facilities.

Like smoking bans in the outside world, the policy seemed tempting at a basic health level. Besides improving overall health, one of the supposed missions of prison bans is to promote detox environments. The Marshall Project, along with other criminal justice reform groups, posits that smoking bans in carceral environments aren’t all that bad. But in practice, bans without harm reduction alternatives pose a series of glaring problems.

One aspect is the potential benefits of nicotine and the harms of withdrawal to people in this setting. Nicotine has calming properties which help to explain, for example, very high smoking rates among people with mental health diagnoses—a population that heavily overlaps with the incarcerated population. Withdrawal, as Carrie Wade explained for Filter, brings symptoms like “irritability, anxiety, depressed mood, craving and malaise”—all of which would be greatly compounded for someone entering prison or jail.

Since incarceration is often physically and emotionally traumatic, smoking a cigarette can be a coping mechanism whose long-term risks understandably seem less important than immediate emotional needs. Unsurprisingly, incarcerated people have responded to bans by seeking contraband tobacco, which may lead to debts and power imbalances, or even violence, among the population.

“A lot of gangs run the business from inside, [from] sourcing the tobacco to smuggling it in, to selling it on the compound and collecting the money.”

“Tobacco comes in a bunch of different ways,” Seth Ferranti, a documentarian and writer who was incarcerated for over 20 years in the federal prison system for first-time drug-law violations, told Filter. “Through the guards, thrown over the fence, smuggled in through visiting rooms or through the warehouse, even mailed in.”

“A lot of gangs run the business from inside, [from] sourcing the tobacco to smuggling it in, to selling it on the compound in retail amounts and collecting the money,” he continued. “I think people should be able to smoke if they want, as long as they have smoking and nonsmoking units and areas.”

But what if prisons and jails promoted safer nicotine products as alternatives to smoking? This is the question a small vape manufacturer in Kentucky thought to ask. Crossbar was founded by former corrections officials. That sets off alarm bells, and the company and the model under which it cooperates with the carceral system, have understandably been criticized for profiteering from incarcerated people. To learn more, I reached out to its founder, Jamie Moseley.

“After much research, I determined that there was not an alternative nicotine product that was safe to be utilized in a correctional setting, so I began the process of developing my own,” said Moseley, who managed a jail in Laurel County, Kentucky, back in 2012. To meet safety regulations, Crossbar developed a product with a soft plastic casing and a low-voltage, non-rechargeable battery.

Mosley claimed, “My intention was to simply create a product that could impact our facility in a positive manner; there was no initial intent to offer the product commercially.” Nonetheless, Crossbar started selling its product through commissaries in Kentucky facilities. Vice estimated that the company stood to make $3.5 million in sales in 2018, and noted outrageous markups, supposedly imposed in part to support rehabilitation programs: “Mosley’s company sells the e-cigs to prisons and jails for about $2 to $3, and the facilities, in turn, sell them to inmates for between $10 and $15.”

“The impact was immediate,” Moseley said. “Tobacco contraband virtually disappeared, and we were generating a significant amount of revenue that would allow us to provide the inmate programming that we were seeking. To our surprise, there were many secondary benefits; we began to notice that inmate-on-inmates assaults declined significantly.”

Of the incarcerated people who use Crossbar’s products, Moseley said, “Many have indicated that upon release they do not intend to return to using combustible tobacco products.” He added that for people who are dependent on other drugs, “I have no question that the ability to utilize this product during incarceration helps to minimize the impact of the lack of drugs.”

This distribution of free or discounted vape starter kits seems highly promising.

It should be noted that there is no independent evidence to support Moseley’s specific claims. But despite the severe ethical problems surrounding this for-profit model to implement vaping in carceral settings, more study of the outcomes of tobacco harm reduction efforts here would certainly be welcome. It is possible that the findings would lend support to the provision of vapes to incarcerated people at the government’s expense—as has already happened elsewhere.

The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice supports the use of e-cigarettes in prisons, to allow them to remain smoke-free while giving nicotine-dependent people relief from cravings and other symptoms. In the UK, vaping products are typically provided in carceral medical environments, and supplied to prisoners either for free or at discounted cost. They are also available at full cost in commissaries. “Prisoners have been given support in quitting smoking if they need it,” a Prison Service spokesperson told Metro UK in 2018, “including vapes, e-cigarettes and nicotine replacement therapy.”

Similarly, the BBC reported in early 2019 that the Scottish Prison Service had spent £150,000 to fund a system-wide vaping kit scheme for incarcerated people. This distribution of free or discounted vape starter kits seems highly promising.

Neither the UK or Scottish prison services respond to Filter’s requests for comment. The US Bureau of Prisons also declined to comment, but pointed to its guidance issued in 2015, which makes no explicit mention of vaping.

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