By: Chandler Kelley
Through the lens of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been more light shone on the importance of maintaining personal hygiene to promote healthy behavior and reduce the spread of the virus. Many of us remember the struggles to get soap and hand sanitizer during the beginning of the pandemic as many stores were sold out of these products due to the high demand for them. Eventually, the desperate need slowed down and we were once again able to access these essentials, regaining some sense of normalcy. Now imagine that this was your everyday life; never being able to fully choose what soap products you had access to or worrying if you may go days without being able to wash with soap. This is something many incarcerated individuals face every day, with or without a global pandemic.
In the prison systems within the United States, over half of the states will only provide incarcerated individuals with hygiene materials if, at any given time, only have between $0 and $10 in their commissary accounts (Herring, 2021). These individuals receiving this are qualified as “indigent”, which each state may define differently, broadly meaning those with little to no access to money. The hygiene kits that are typically provided to indigent individuals are typically soap, shampoo, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and shaving materials. While many prisons don’t offer hygiene kits for people who aren’t of indigent status, some prisons do provide some sort of free bar soap. As we learned during a series of interviews conducted by Benevolence Farm, some incarcerated individuals won’t use the provided soap bars because they are generally too harsh on the skin and don’t allow the individual to feel clean. For some women when asked about the free soap provided by the prisons, they stated that the free soap “was for the birds” and is “soap I wouldn’t wash my dog with”. Generally, if the prisons provide soap to incarcerated people, some use that soap to wash their clothes in the sinks of their cells. However, some women reported avoiding washing their underwear with the provided soap because it can cause yeast infections.
For those who don’t qualify for indigent status or cannot use the provided soap, one must purchase their soap and hygiene products through the prison commissary. Many incarcerated individuals who can afford the hygiene products in the commissaries opt to buy these products because they are considerably higher quality than the provided soap bars which are usually made up of low-quality materials (e.g. lye). In Massachusetts prisons in 2016, incarcerated individuals bought over 245,000 bars of soap with a total cost of about $215,057 (Raher, 2018). Incarcerated individuals end up spending about $22 each on soap per year, which considering how little money most incarcerated individuals make is a high price to pay. The hygiene products most sold in prison commissaries are Dove body wash, Dove bars, Ivory, Dial, Tone soap bars, Irish Spring, Coast, Ambi, Pantene, Suave, and Palmolive (Benevolence Farm Alumnus).
Educating on safe hygiene practices (e.g. personal sanitary habits) and increasing access to hygiene products (e.g. soap) are shown to be some of the most effective ways to reduce poor health outcomes within the prison systems (Guo et al., 2019). And yet why are our prison systems so reluctant to provide quality hygiene products to incarcerated individuals? So many incarcerated individuals struggle with obtaining hygiene products, whether that be for any hygiene products or products that actually allow them to feel clean. Prisons should be more focused on providing their residents with the appropriate quantity of quality hygiene products to promote proper self-hygiene practices. Increasing hygiene practices and access to hygiene products will allow incarcerated individuals to feel better about themselves and stay in better health which has been shown to increase success during incarceration. Higher success rates during incarceration will in turn increase success rates post-release (e.g. less negative feelings towards self appearance, more confidence, and less negative health outcomes).
Herring, T. (2021, November 18). For the poorest people in prison, it’s a struggle to access even basic necessities. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2021/11/18/indigence/.
Raher, Stephen. “The Company Store: a Deeper Look at Prison Commissaries.” The Company Store | Prison Policy Initiative, May 2018, www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/commissary.html.
Guyette, Curt. “Unprotected in Prison: Pleas for Help from the Inside.” ACLU of Michigan, 21 Apr. 2020, www.aclumich.org/en/news/unprotected-prison-pleas-help-inside.
Guo, Wilson, et al. “A Systematic Scoping Review of Environmental Health Conditions in Penal Institutions.” International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, vol. 222, no. 5, 2019, pp. 790–803., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijheh.2019.05.001.