Back when I went to Camp All America (basically a summer session of New York Military Academy), showering and shitting were done completely out in the open. Thirty eight kids shared two shower heads and three toilets with absolutely no partition or privacy. So one might ask “Is that what it’s like in the joint?”
Well…I’m glad to say that times have changed. Figuring (and rightly so in my opinion) that such public displays might breed homosexuality and/or violence, the powers that be afford inmates their privacy while shitting and showering. I’ve already indicated that in the Tombs, each man has his own cell complete with a sink and toilet. So I won’t repeat except to say when it came time for a sit-down, you were free to stay as long as you wanted with nobody checking on you unless they chose to peer through the window on your cell door.
Showering, while not as private, was still more or less civilized. Against the wall and off to the side of the entrance to the unit stood six shower stalls, all with a swinging door reminiscent of a public shitter at a rest stop on the highway. The doors didn’t stay closed on their own. But if you wedged a plastic spoon where the closing mechanism used to be, you were good to go. The shower head itself was quite good. But the hot and cold controls were truly the challenge. Because inmates tend to flood the place for fun, the traditional knob was replaced by a push button which you not only had to push fully – but actually indent to get the water flowing. And once you released the button, the water stopped immediately!
My first shower netted me a badly broken thumbnail (more on that later) caused by the aforementioned obvious. Midway, I realized that if I used my toothbrush head rather than my thumbnail, I would at least avoid injury. But that was after suffering the ultimate hangnail. Clearly, getting your body wet…soaping it up…and then rinsing was a serious challenge as one arm was always occupied jamming an implement into the button with serious force.
Supposedly, there was a way to wedge a plastic fork between the button and its housing to make the water flow freely. And actually, the top middle shower boasted such a configuration. But I only saw that accessory one time – and in one shower. More often, I noticed pencils and pens lying about. And I knew inmates were using those for operating the shower. Actually regulating the water temperature was near impossible as it would have taken two arms and hands in tandem to accomplish that task. Thus, I used all hot water which while hotter than I would have liked, was just on the edge but not past the scalding level. Despite the obstacles, I managed.
But there were other hygienic hurdles challenging the inmate – especially in that period before a guy could go to commissary and get the little stuff he needed. Unfortunately, I was arrested on Thursday morning and my unit’s once-per-week visit to commissary was scheduled for every Wednesday. Thus, I went without certain items for a week. When an inmate is taken from intake to his cell, he’s given a cup, crappy little toothbrush with which you can barely brush your teeth it’s so short, a small tube of generic toothpaste, and a motel size bar of soap. Additionally, we got one frayed towel, two khaki shirts and pants, a khaki sweatshirt, and a white t-shirt. At least that’s what you’re supposed to get. It wasn’t until Saturday that I managed to get a sweatshirt. And I never got a t-shirt. As a result, I walked around with a towel wrapped around my neck to fend off the air conditioning which was mighty in the unit.
While I didn’t really sweat much (or hardly at all), I did stink. Without deodorant, there wasn’t much hope. Not that anybody could smell me. But when I took off the khakis to shower and got a whiff my initial reaction was “Is that me?” Yeah, it was. I assume deodorant was available at commissary. But by the time Wednesday rolled around, I knew my release was imminent. So why bother? I went to commissary just to see what it was (ugh!) but didn’t buy anything knowing I’d be out in at most a day.
Shaving was a curious activity. The mirror above the sink isn’t made of glass (I don’t have to tell you why). It was a sort of polished steel in which there would be no way to shave yourself neatly. Disposable razors were available after breakfast from the CO on duty. All inmates were required to shave with their doors open and to return the razor forthwith after having accomplished the job. Again…I don’t have to explain why.
Now to washing your clothing. This I found to be the worst of it. At the moment the police knocked on my door, I was literally sitting on the pot naked – and reading Jon Meachem’s biography of Andrew Jackson. I hardly had time to plan my wardrobe. It wouldn’t have mattered. All I was allowed to bring along was reading glasses, my apartment keys, and money for commissary. Accordingly, I had no choice but to wear the same pair of underwear and socks for a week. I washed my socks once which in retrospect was a poor idea as it took 30 hours for them to dry. As for my drawers, oh forget it! Inmates who’ve been in for a while have changes sent to them and actually buy clothesline from commissary with which to hang wet clothing. So at least, it’s not so bad after the first week. Peering into the inmates’ cells, you’d get a view of a well-lived-in space with clothing hanging from those clotheslines in almost every cell. And the jail issued plastic bins in which you could wash your clothing.
Little things that most people wouldn’t even consider were also remarkably challenging. Like in real life when you break a nail, you go get a scissor or emery board to fix the problem. Not so in jail. The very first night, I broke a fingernail fixing my bed. Carefully, I tore off what was hanging so as not to remove too much of the nail. And then I filed it against the cinder block wall in my cell. It wasn’t like an emery board (remember I have guitar nails), but I managed well enough so it didn’t present a problem.
Now here’s an interesting facet to jail hygiene: I needed to cut my toenails and figured maybe I could borrow a nail clipper. It turns out that you can’t have a nail clipper in jail. Once a week, the unit has barber day. And if you want to have your nails clipped, you go to the barber to get the job done! Very interesting.
And one thing peculiar to me that I worried about if ever incarcerated was access to vaseline. Forty years ago, I developed a monstrous hemorrhoid and ever since, I’m vigilant about cleaning and lubing that area after a dump hoping to never experience that condition again (though I do on occasion). My quest to get anything resembling lube – let alone vaseline – was answered with a bureaucracy too convoluted to describe here. The bottom line is that I never got what I needed. But owing to diligent care – and a lot of shredded wheat, roughage and fresh fruit – I avoided disaster.
And that wraps it up on the hygiene front. To summarize, inmates at the Tombs can be clean and fresh if they so choose. But only after the first week. For that initial period, you’re out of luck.