One of the most sought-after jobs for inmates in the DOC is Laundry Porter. At most facilities laundry is processed by unit laundry porters. Prison laundries are located either in the housing unit, a facility laundry or in a few rare instances at an off-site facility. With the doubling of the number of prisoners housed in each housing unit, like most ancillary infrastructure the laundry facilities did not increase. The result is a real need for 24/7 laundry operations in order to keep up with the demand. The washers and dryers are generally commercial/industrial grade in nature and most are decades old. The result is that there are frequent breakdowns with repairs conducted by in-house maintenance staff as long as there are parts available. Laundry detergent and bleach are delivered in 5-gallon pails which are hooked up by tubing to the washing machine and are automatically measured out and added to the wash, depending on the cycle chosen.
Laundry Porters are considered unskilled labor and are paid less than $1 per day but make a fortune in coffee and Raman noodles by providing special service. If you wanted your laundry to come back clean you contracted for about $3 per month with a laundryman to personally see to the washing of your clothes, especially items like sweats. If you didn’t pay to have your laundry done then it would likely be crammed into the washer with too many others’ bags. Laundry is placed into mesh bags with your prison ID and housing unit bunk number (called a lock). So, if you didn’t pay to have it washed separately it be washed in the bag and tended not to come clean due to the lack of agitation.
The standing joke was that laundry came back dirtier than when it was turned in. I proved this once by turning in a brand new white tee shirt and it came back gray. Leaving one to wonder if the laundry had been washed with the rag mop heads. Also, the odds of your laundry not coming back due to theft increased significantly if you didn’t pay. In one housing unit where I locked the laundry porter would put wet laundry bags on the heat register to finish drying where anyone had access, so laundry frequently turned up missing, especially items like sweats or new uniform blues.
Paying for a free service was the only way to get your clothes cleaned and returned each time. It wasn’t without risk but there isn’t any coin operated self-service alternative. At a different facility the laundry was a facility laundry so there were fewer problems with laundry theft, but the washing was really poor. I had to resort to hand washing my tee shirts in the bathroom sink and hang them over the end rail of my bunk to dry. Theoretically this is against the rules but a lot of guys who were concerned about their appearance did it all the time. Considering that you only got 3 tee shirts that meant sink washing 2-3 times a week.
Doing laundry was necessary since you have such a limited wardrobe, at least it should be. Not everyone was hygienically inclined and would wear their uniforms for days on end. Some of these were people with mental disorders and it would take a direct order from the CO to get them to shower and change clothes. In cases like this the laundry man would treat the dirty laundry like it was a biohazard and wash it separately. Laundry Porters had to trained to handle blood borne pathogens, since blood, urine, and fecal material are biohazardous. Since the washing process does not sterilize and the colored load doesn’t use bleach these could contaminate other people’s clothes and spread disease.
I knew one guy who had bowel troubles and he paid several laundry men to handle his biohazardous laundry so any time he had an accident he could get his soiled laundry cleaned. If he didn’t pay they wouldn’t touch his stuff. For someone who was disabled and unable to work this represented a financial hardship, but he didn’t have an option. The laundry porters treat their jobs like a business and aren’t into charity.