30 March 2015

Don’t Stop the Soap

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“Are you scared?” wins first place for all questions asked of prisoners. “Is the food spoiled?” comes in second. “What are the showers like?” lands the third spot consistently.

ganag showerPossibly because of it’s association with the perpetual prison punchline and correctional well-wishing – “Don’t drop the soap!”- a shower in prison intrigues people who have never been inside. They picture gang showers, virtual tiled auditoriums with fifty separate shower heads marking off every couple of yards, condensation-filled coliseums where naked inmates rape and kill  – or worse, size each other up for future connections – while blood mixes with bathers’ runoff and trickles down an 8-inch diameter drain.

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This is cleaner and has shelves, but it is the type of shower I used in prison.

I disappoint them when I tell them that my shower setup is just like theirs. After undressing in a drape-protected vestibule, inmates shower in a private, while tiled, cheapest-one-you-can-find-at-Home-Depot fiberglass tub, behind plasticized burlap shower curtains.

Because she had already asked me the first two questions months before, my lawyer asked me the shower question because, when I met with her in a tiny room for a visit, I smelled so bad from not bathing that I sickened myself. I had been in seg for twenty seven days,  nine showers and three clothing changes (seg inmates shower once on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only and change their shirt and pants once every Friday). Eight showers, actually, because one shower day had been sacrificed for a fruitless trip to court when Tina didn’t even show up.

The seg uniform. Imagine changing your clothes once a week.
The seg uniform. Imagine changing your clothes once a week.

“I know I reek, ok, Tina? Do the math: three showers, one uniform change, no shaving. It adds up to that watery feeling that collects in your jaw when you are about to puke. I know.” I generally hate Tina anyway because she is dumb and a liar, but the timing of her visit threatened another one of my three weekly showers because they had just started the shower brigade that morning and had not reached my cell when I was marched over to another building to meet with her.

“Well, as long as you know,” she said and babbled on, not even bothering to try to request a shower because of her visit (“I can’t do that – that would be special treatment for you!”) or whether I can use my own supplies like soap, deodorant and shampoo in seg (I can’t) or whether the state supplies anything effective while you’re in seg (small bar of soap and mini shampoo but they ran out of the ineffective deodorant). “You can’t take a bath in here, can you?”

“You mean like sit in the tub? No one ever sits in the tubs.”

“Yeah, I was going to tell you not to sit in a dirty tub.”

“Thanks for the advice, Tina but if you won’t get me access to the shower, how would I sit in a tub?” I asked. Tina always misses the point.

imageAnd the the reason we don’t sit in the tubs isn’t the fact that the shower is trafficked and forever filthy, with greasy, grey sludge around the rim. We need to stay on our feet to dodge falling debris when the ceiling caves in from steam build up from 30 showers every day. Overuse weakens the overhead sheetrock or sometimes heavy snow falls through. I have actually bobbed my head under canary-colored “Caution” tape stretched across the shower and stood under a ragged hole in the ceiling to catch a double dose of drips – some from the shower head, some from the roof – along with a few mysterious shards. For me, the biggest danger in a prison shower isn’t getting raped; it’s the actual shower itself. I still charge right in.

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That’s right: ignore that soap and stay under the water while you have the chance.

When you are denied the chance to bathe, rape, assault or being crushed by a falling beam are not scary things. I risk all of those things to shower in here because safety and security trumps certain human needs like bathing; no inmate is guaranteed a daily shower even if she’s not in seg. On a normal day, theoretically, we can shower as many times as we want during the rec periods. But when some irregularity (fights, dangerous objects or even inmates going missing, emergency weather) happens and it always does, the prison teaches the inmates just how much an indulgence washing your pits really is. When we get locked down, sweat-coated, stained victims of menstrual accidents must stay as we are and funkify and fester in our cells. The fact that rapes happen in prison showers shocks me because I can’t see any prisoner wasting the chance to bathe on sex or an assault.

I remember reading something about an inmate at Angola who had been made a sex slave, regularly raped. To prevent people from wanting any physical proximity to him, he refused to bathe and earned the nickname “Stinky Dunn.” But the smell wasn’t enough of a deterrent; someone tried to rape him and Dunn ended up killing his assailant. He now serves a life sentence that is punctuated only occasionally with showers for him to wash the blood off his hands.

imageWhen a guard from seg came to pick me up from visits after Tina finished her pointless rant, he had to cuff me behind my back and the movement at my shoulders released a waft of body odor.

“Sorry, Magruder.” The smell was so bad and so obviously emanating from me that I couldn’t ignore it.

“It’s OK,” he said with little compassion.

“Did my tier finish showering yet? Please tell me I didn’t miss mine.”

“I think they…well, I don’t know. Let’s just get back to the unit and see what’s going on,” he said as he grasped the underside of my upper arm, his hand right near my pungent armpit, and led me out of the visiting building.

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When I’m dirty, I’m down for any shower.

Magruder wasn’t the type to screw around with inmates; he hates us too much. But I wondered how far I would go with one of the more unscrupulous guards to get this shower. I would probably let them do any dirty deed (as if they would want to given my fragrant state) to my smelly, hairy dirty parts just for the chance to rinse those dirty parts and pretend that they’re clean. From not bathing, I now understand why the Nazis would keep concentration camp prisoners from bathing regularly; twisting about in your own fleshly mud induces such self-hatred that you end up not expecting abuse but accepting it, even wanting it if you can scrub up after the encounter. On that trip down the sidewalk back to the seg building, I finally figured out what complete desperation was because my first and only question was “What do I have to do to take a shower?” Whatever it was, I would have done it.

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Reader Poll

From The Winnipedg Free Press: The new Will Ferrell/ Kevin Hart movie “Get Hard” includes jokes about being raped in prison showers.

Why are "Don't Drop the Soap" jokes funny?

  • They aren't funny. They are played out. Writers who use those jokes are hacks. (75%, 6 Votes)
  • Because they depict the utimate retribution and punishment and people feel smug and satisfied at extra-legal punishment. (13%, 1 Votes)
  • Rape is just naturally amusing. (13%, 1 Votes)
  • They are funny to people who are homophobic, no one else. (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 8

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Posted March 30, 2015 by chandra in category "Prison Conditions

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