Monday, September 19, 2011


Dateline: August 1, 2011

Someone stole my roll of toilet paper. Don’t laugh─it’s not funny.

I am sitting on a lidless, stainless steel toilet inside the bathroom of a maximum security prison in Florida. Take my word for it─seatless stainless steel toilets are cold! Raise the seat on your toilet at home and sit on the bowl rim, or, better yet, drive to the sleaziest, most rundown gas station in town, get the bathroom key, tread carefully to the toilet, raise the seat and sit down. That will possibly approximate the gross-out factor that I deal with every day when I must use the communal toilets that several men before me with bad aim used as urinals.

Before you sit, there are some preliminaries: flush first!─this is mandatory; ‘tis better to discover that your toilet of choice will flush when you need it to, or if it is clogged and won’t flush, or, horror of horrors, will overflow and flood when you flush it, than find out while you are perched there.

After trial flushing, make sure you have toilet paper. It may be difficult to call for help when you are stuck there indisposed, a situation that reminds me of the old joke about the intellectually-disadvantaged traveler who realized there was no toilet paper in the bus station stall just as the public address speaker announced last boarding call for his departing Greyhound.

Wondering what to do, the man heard someone enter the bathroom and use the urinal. “Hey, buddy, would you see if there is some toilet paper in that other stall, please?”

“Sorry, not a bit.”

“Well, how about some paper towels?”

“Nope, all they have is a hot air hand dryer.”

"Uh, how about the trash can? Are there any scraps in there?”

“It’s empty.”

“What am I going to do? My bus is leaving, and I can’t wipe my butt.”

“Do you have a dollar?”

“A dollar? Yeah.”

“There you go. You don’t want to miss your bus. Use a dollar to wipe with, and just throw it away.”

“Good idea. Thanks.”

A couple of minutes went by. The gentleman was washing his hands when the traveler emerged from the toilet stall, his hands smeared with stinky mess.

“My goodness!” the man said. “What happened? I told you to use a dollar.”

“I did,” the traveler said. “Have you ever tried to wipe your butt with three quarters, two dimes, and a nickel?”

I didn’t have a dollar, or any change, for that matter. We use canteen debit cards in prison, but I wasn’t going to use that, either.

The problem is that with the state budget deficit and funding crisis, there is a toilet paper shortage in prison. Up until recently, the guards issued each prisoner one roll of toilet paper a week, along with a tiny bar of motel soap and a disposable “Bic” razor for the mandatory daily shave. In June, a memo came out with a schedule decreeing that henceforth all male prisoners would receive a roll of toilet paper every ten days. Women prisoners would remain on the seven-day plan.

Why do women prisoners still get toilet paper every seven days, while the men do not? No one knows for sure, but speculation is that the women are more “stand up” than the men, more adamant about the erosion of their limited prison rights, and they won’t abide arbitrary edicts like limiting their ability to maintain their basic human hygienic needs. This theory is born out by the package permit experience of the late 1990’s.

When I came to prison a hundred years ago (it seems), at Raiford, we could send out a package permit to our families once a month (later, it became once every three months). Our families could send us six items: a pair of shoes, a package of three T-shirts or underwear, socks (four), a bottle of shampoo, deodorant, watch, radios, towels, things like that. It saved the state money by not having to furnish a lot of shoes, toiletry items, or other personal property, and it enabled us to have the satisfaction of having our own things sent to us from home. At Christmas we could receive a 15-pound box of food from home: fruit cake, cookies, candy, and nuts. That meant a lot, and provided a strong emotional connection.

Times changed. The “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality of the ‘nineties came to the forefront. Mandatory drug laws and harsh sentencing filled up new prisons as fast as they could build them. The prison budget expanded exponentially. Build them, and they will fill them. The package permits that so many had come to expect became threatened by new prison administrators who found one more thing they could deprive us of, to separate us from family and loved ones and the support that gives us. In 1997 a memo came out stating that the Christmas packages that year would be the last ones. At least they were for the male prison population. For the women, it was a different story. Didn’t I tell you that the women were more “stand up” than the men?

Whereas the men just rolled over and accepted fate, the women said, hell no, you’re not taking our packages. They raised holy hell.

Today, if you go to the Laws of Florida, Florida Administrative Code, Chapter 33, the Department of Corrections rules, and look up the listing for official D.O.C. forms, under “property,” you will find “Package Permit, Female Institutions.” Don’t look for “Package Permit, Male Institutions.” You won’t find it. Fourteen years later, the ladies are still getting their packages from home.

I said all that to explain why the men can get one roll of toilet tissue every ten days, while the women wait seven days. They simply won’t accept the extreme toilet paper rationing.

In years past, toilet paper was dispensed on an “as needed” basis. Bring the empty cardboard roll and trade it in for a new one from the guard as needed. That made sense. What if you had a bad cold, sinuses, or the flu, and had to blow your nose all day, for several days? Or perhaps you caught some salmonella or e. coli from the leftover, re-heated “sloppy Joe” meat that went into the spaghetti, got food poisoning, and suffered through a couple of days of dysentery-like diarrhea. That scrawny roll wouldn’t last long. You could become as desperate as the bus traveler, or as I was, sitting on the cold stainless steel toilet bowl rim wondering who stole my toilet paper.

Supposedly, according to the memo, anyone who found themselves without toilet paper before the ten-day date could do the same as before─present the empty roll and get a new one from the officers’ station. In practice, the answer is usually, “We don’t have any.” Such responses have led to a cottage industry of some prisoners selling spare rolls for food, coffee, or cigarettes, or, like in my case, snatching a roll off the concrete divider between toilets. These unsportsmanlike acts contribute to hard feelings and retribution. Someone stole mine, so I’m stealing yours.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had such shortages in prison. In the mid-1980’s, at Zephyrhills C.I., the shortage got so bad after a couple of weeks that men were ripping out pages from magazines and Bibles to wipe with, causing clogged pipes that kept the plumbers busy. I got so desperate that I wrote a request to the warden:

“Sir─would you please send me a roll of toilet paper? The dorms have been out for two weeks, and if anyone has toilet paper, I know you have an extra roll in the executive bathroom out there in the Admin. Bldg. Thanks.”

The next day the Major and a sergeant appeared at my cell door. The Major had a request form in his hand. The other hand was behind his back. “Step out into the hallway, Norman.”

I did. He nodded at the sergeant, who proceeded to search my cell. He finished, nodded “no” to the Major.

The Major held up the request. “You wrote Mr. Henderson a request for toilet paper.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You asked him to send you a roll from the executive bathroom.”

“Yes, sir.”

“He told me to search your room, and if you had any toilet paper, to lock you up for lying to staff. Otherwise, here.”

He produced a roll of toilet paper he’d been holding behind his back and handed it to me. Charmin! Hmm. Life was good in the executive bathroom. Smiling, I took it. They left. I retrieved the partial roll of scratchy state toilet paper I’d hidden, that the sergeant had missed, and gave it to a grateful neighbor.

Perhaps my plea to the warden had embarrassed him. That night a couple cases of toilet paper were delivered and passed out. The drought was over. I squirreled away a spare roll, just in case. You never know.

A few years ago, at Tomoka, where the pistol target range is only blocks from the prison, during another tissue drought, several of us marveled at the firepower as thousands of rounds of ammunition blasted away for hours on end. It sounded like the Taliban and al Qaeda were trying to attack Daytona Beach, and dozens of trigger-happy prison guards were mounting a valiant defense.

An old-timer groused, “Didja ever notice that they can’t keep toilet paper in this place, but they never run out of bullets?” The truth, as they say.

The present supply problem is exacerbated by the incredible shrinking roll of prison toilet paper. Not only have they decreased the frequency of issuance, but they have also shrunk the rolls! When they passed out the new rolls, they were noticeably smaller in dimensions than the old rolls. How low can you go? The old paper was nothing to brag about─tear off a sheet and place it over your newspaper, and you can read the printed text easily, without difficulty. It is that thin. You can’t do that with Charmin. Where does this stuff come from─North Korea? I’m getting worried now. I saw the prison canteen operator change the tape in his adding machine printer (yes, Virginia, they still have those old things in prison), a paper roll about three inches wide and three inches in diameter, and for a moment there, I had a flash of the future─that’s what they’d be handing out to us if we weren’t careful.

Back to the present. There I sat, seething. They’d be calling “count” soon, and I’d be required to go to my bunk. Eight men stood at the metal sinks, four or five feet in front of me and the line of other toilets, brushing their teeth and washing their faces. Gross! Did I tell you that there is little or no privacy in prison? It’s like that old joke, “How do you tell when the honeymoon is over? She brushes her teeth while he does his business on the toilet.”

I didn’t want to ask the guy in the next stall to borrow his roll. People are funny about such things in here. Fortunately for me, a young prisoner approached me, smiling, and handed the missing roll back to me. It had been his idea of a friendly joke. I had two ways to respond: I could become angry, scowl, and castigate him for taking the toilet tissue, which is probably how his father treated him before slapping him around every week of his formative years, or I could do what I did, smile, reach out, take the roll and say, “Thanks.”

Sometimes the best solution is the easiest solution.