How to stay clean in prison

I saw new guys avoid the showers because of fear, but that never played out well. You can't stink in prison

Published July 7, 2017 6:58PM (EDT)


Excerpted with permission from "A Day in Prison" by John Fuller. Copyright 2017, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

There are six showerheads available in the small, white-and-mold tiled room, but no guards. Terror is probably turning your bowels to water as you try to decide if you really need to shower. You’ve seen the movies. But you’ve probably also had the nervous sweats and so you’ll literally smell scared. Keeping the towel wrapped around you until the last possible second, you’re going to turn on the water and probably decide against waiting for it to get hot. Bust out your tiny green bottle of Pert shampoo, rinse under the tepid stream, and get dressed without taking the time to dry off. Try not to look freaked out, though the amused faces and hoots from the room full of naked men will let you know if you were unsuccessful.

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Keeping clean in prison is a necessity, not a luxury. You need to wear clean clothes and take showers not just because that’s what you’re used to on the outside, or because it’s an administrative policy, but also to make sure you aren’t offending anyone with your body odor. You’ve got a cell mate and he is going to care if you stink.

I saw new guys avoid the showers because of fear, but that never played out well. During my first year inside, two different men were harassed into leaving the television room because they smelled so offensive. One of them had his head dunked in a used toilet to encourage him to get under the shower spray. If an inmate starts to stink, other inmates have the right to ask the guy to leave the shared spaces, or move into another cell. If he still refuses to take a shower, his fellow inmates may give him a time frame to check into Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg) or suffer the consequences later. If he’s smart, he will take his shower, but if he absolutely refuses, the correctional officers can write a disciplinary sanction or throw him in Ad Seg. And he better hope that happens before the prisoners enforce their threats.

Put simply: Don’t stink. Take a shower.

Hollywood makes it look like you’re going to get raped every time you take a shower—don’t panic, that’s just not true. Don’t get me wrong, rape is sometimes used as a tool to punish or subdue fellow inmates, even in the women’s facilities, but it’s rare. And if a man is trying to find himself a sex partner, voluntarily or not, there will be signs to watch for. More than once, I overheard convicts chatting up fresh meat and offering advice or gifts, but really they were trying to trick the new guy into letting his guard down around them in the shower. For example, I know an inmate who left some Honey Buns and magazines on the bunk of a new guy two cells down from me. The guy accepted the gifts, not realizing the convict was going to follow him into the shower later and make him “pay” for the stuff.

Rape is preventable if you can avoid making enemies, you’re not gullible, and you pay attention. But if you are raped, you should not wash or shower.

Go to medical ASAP, get tested for sexual diseases, and hopefully you’ll get the necessary medication to combat any possible diseases. You have the right to find out the investigation details in most cases, thanks to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which was put into place some years ago to curb the prison rape culture, creating a supposed zero-tolerance policy for intimate contact (which includes a friendly slap on the ass during a basketball game).

In most prisons, if you are not on lockdown, you can usually go to the shower room in your cell block, or housing unit, at different times throughout the day. Try to pick a time when the room is not jammed, but neither do you want to be there if it’s empty. The shower rooms are supposed to be cleaned, but I was in a few prisons where “clean” was loosely interpreted by the prison workers—very loosely interpreted. Some institutions are clean, especially the newer ones, but many shower floors and walls are layered in semen, urine, feces, and fungus. If you’re not given a pair of shower shoes when you are brought in, get a pair of shower shoes or flip-flops from the commissary right away. Your other alternative is to use the cheap, low-cut, orange or blue sneakers they issue inmates when you are first processed into the institution. When the shower drains or bathroom pipes back up, as they are wont to do, do not walk through that sludge. Clean your feet thoroughly if it happens, using some kind of disinfectant if you can, especially on open cuts or bug bites. If you land in a county jail, state, or federal prison with a shower that’s cleaned daily, consider it a blessing. Inmates are assigned to clean showers but finding one who puts his heart and soul into the job is as likely as seeing a lion and hyena raising one another’s cubs.

Convicts customarily offer shower shoes to new prisoners—this is the only gift from an inmate you should consider taking. There is a general consensus that no one wants to begin his incarceration by picking up a nasty foot infection. Oh, and one more side note on shower shoes: walk carefully. Those cheap, plastic bastards are slippery when wet. I thought I broke my tailbone the one time I wasn’t paying attention and moved across a wet tile floor too fast. If you’re gonna’ get hurt in prison, you want the story to contain the words, “you should see the other guy,” not “I slid in my flip-flops.”

Once you’ve got the appropriate footwear, walk into the shower with your towel, leaving on your boxers or briefs, and quickly do your soaping and rinsing, wrap the towel back around you, and get out. The shower is not a place to dawdle. But don’t look scared. Dogs smell fear.

As you’re going about your hygiene, don’t make eye contact; don’t stare. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. But especially when you’re standing naked next to some other dude . . . keep your eyes on the wall. Looking at someone is an invitation to violence. And you absolutely do not want to give the impression you are seeking sexual attention. Unless you are. But even so, you have to know that these guys aren’t looking for a romantic interlude. There is a population of institutionalized heterosexual males who engage in homosexual activity on the inside because they want the release, but they’ll fight anyone who calls them gay, and they definitely are not looking for a boyfriend. Those encounters are almost always done in secret. No inmate likes being called gay when they are not. Being openly gay in prison can get you killed by guys looking to prove their toughness, or it can make you a target for some guy who doesn’t consider himself gay but gets off on rape. As I said, rape is not an everyday thing, but it does happen—4 percent of inmates in 2012 reported being raped (US Department of Justice), and that’s just the victims who came forward.

So, don’t strike up a conversation with anyone while taking a shower—that is a signal for wanting sex. Offer only polite, short responses if someone starts talking to you.

If you are attacked while in the shower, make yourself as small a target as possible. Fight back if you can. Best to trust your instincts and get the hell out of there if someone’s body language is dangerous or the hairs on the back of your neck are rising. Paying attention to my instincts saved my ass many times, literally.

Once you’re done with your shower, you’re going to need to take care of your clothes. Since you are only allotted a certain amount of clothes, you need to be responsible enough to get them washed at least once a week, or more if you are exercising in them. The laundry system varies from prison to prison, but you generally will have a laundry room, similar to a laundromat on the outside, where you can wash and dry your clothes, though you’ll need to buy the soap from the commissary. If you find that someone else’s load has finished drying and you need the dryer, you may remove the clothes, as long as you politely fold them and leave them in a neat stack. If you’re not willing to do that, you need to wait for another dryer to free up. You can’t just dump someone else’s clothes in a heap, it’s considered disrespectful. Imagine how pissed that makes the woman in your life, when you dump a load of her clothes on the bed—multiply that rage by ten in prison.

You can wash your own sheets or towels, but you usually just exchange them once a week for clean ones at the laundry room. In between using the laundry room, you can wash some of your clothes in your cell and hang them to dry, as was mentioned earlier. But you are probably not going to want to be constantly surrounded by hanging underwear.

If you choose to leave while your clothes are still in the washer or dryer, you are taking a risk. Swiping someone’s gym socks or a T-shirt is a common occurrence in lower security prisons. Many convicts pay someone to sit in the room and do their laundry. Of course, that can lead to funny situations. One time, my friend and I were walking through the prison housing unit and heard an openly gay guy in the laundry room saying “I just love your dirty drawers, I just love your dirty drawers.” We thought he was actually talking with someone, but when we passed by laundry room, he was holding a pair of men’s underwear in both hands, talking to them. He had a crush on some inmate and was holding a conversation with the guy’s underwear. We thought that was hilarious.

I’ve already said this, but if you are a kleptomaniac, you better break that habit before you are incarcerated with a bunch of men who have few possessions and the very real desire to kill anyone who would dare steal from them. A pair of socks may seem like nothing to you now, but jail has a way of reacquainting you with the value of the little things you took for granted on the outside.

One of the worst beat downs I’ve seen was because of stealing. When I was at Fort Dix, with three thousand inmates divided into a west side and an east side, a new guy was transferred over from the other side and placed in a room with a bunch of cellies I knew. He told me he’d been moved because he was accused of stealing but that he hadn’t done it. I believed him. I even thought he was a good guy, but still kept my eye on him. One day, I noticed he wasn’t around and one of his cell mates, who I knew to be a stand up guy, finally told me, “We had to punish the guy.” They’d beaten him badly, with cans of tuna fish in tube socks. According to the boys, those who lived in that room were in the habit of leaving their lockers open, having come to trust one another. But when the new guy moved in, suddenly small items like candy bars and even socks went missing. They showed him no mercy. That man was relocated to a different prison because his life was in danger, though he never did snitch on the guys who beat him. I remained friends with the roommates, but I felt bad for the klepto. He seemed like a nice enough guy; he just couldn’t control his impulses. He sure paid for it.

The one place you won’t have to worry about anyone stealing your socks is in The Hole, but you also have no access to laundered clothes. I wish I didn’t know this from personal experience, but as I said, I got into fights or put under investigation for one reason or another early on and ended up in Ad Seg more than once. So, what did I do to clean my clothes? I used the toilet. Once you’ve flushed, there is clean water in the bowl, no matter how disgusting it might seem. First, I would take my shirt and place it in the tiny, flat sink, get the material damp without getting too much water on the floor, and then I would scrub the material with a bar of soap. Then, I would do what the old-timers taught me: dunk the shirt in the toilet, flushing multiple times to provide a rush of fresh, running water. I’d squeeze it out really good and hang it up.

You may have the same issue at a high security facility. Depending on which institution and where you’re located on the inside, you might be in your cell for twenty-three hours a day. You will be on a strict showering schedule, with limited or no access to laundering, so consider that if you’re going to spend two hours working out and sweating like a beast in your cell.

On the other end of the spectrum, low security facility showers and laundries are most likely to be large, open rooms—think high school locker rooms. There will be more people coming in and out, and still no guards, so all the more reason to do your business and move along. If you sense tension rising or a fight brewing, get out. You do not want to become involved, either physically or as a witness.

Women tend to take longer in the shower. But the rules are the same as for the men: don’t dawdle. If you want to shave your legs, you may be able to buy a razor at the commissary, but in some prisons you might only be able to check one out, to use within ten minutes or less. There is less physical violence among the women, but it still exists. Do whatever primping you’re going to do back in your cell. I’ve been in The Hole and you’re given only seven minutes to shower and shave before the water automatically shuts off, whether you still have soap on your body or not; it’s the same in some of the female prisons. You won’t be allowed makeup, but a lot of women (and some men) use Kool-Aid to stain their lips and cheeks, which you can get that at the commissary. Some women have also used Sharpies and colored pencils as eyeliner, but be aware it can make your eyes red or dried out. There are other foods (especially candy) or items (newspapers) that use dye or can work as a stain (coffee, juice), so there is a lot of experimenting with using lotion to transfer the color onto the face. My personal opinion is to stay away from putting chemicals on your skin that aren’t meant to be there, but I understand a woman often times has a lot of her self-confidence tied up in her appearance. I sympathize, but suggest you use common sense when it comes to vanity in prison.

I know women who stick magazine tear-out samples of perfume in with their clothes, either in the dryer or in the folded clothes, to serve in the place of a nice-smelling dryer sheet. Why not? A little aromatherapy can be soothing.

When you first go in, male or female, you will be given a small amount of toiletries that will quickly run out. I remember that first day, being handed my fish kit, also called a bedroll, which was one blanket, two sheets, four pairs of underwear, two T-shirts, pants, socks, a pair of shoes, one winter coat, two rolls of toilet paper, one single-blade Bic razor, and one cheap bar of soap. As I emptied my meager possessions onto my bunk, I realized this was it—all that I had to my name. Make sure your family has placed money into your commissary account as soon as they can. In the meantime, the women tend to offer shampoo and shower shoes to the new inmates much more often than the men. Again, be wary of gifts, but it does seem that women differ from men in that they usually provide these few items without expecting anything but respect in return.

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