Nothing epitomizes the prison experience better than the 1-ply toilet paper that is available for personal hygiene. It is bought in bulk, delivered by the pallet to the housing units but passed out sparingly, used thoughtlessly, and discarded unceremoniously. Toilet paper (TP) is essential and yet taken for granted. There is nothing cottony soft about the industrial grade sandpaper that is purchased for prisoner use. Think of the flimsiest, least absorbent, roughest TP you have used in a public bathroom. Now imagine having to use it 24/7/365 instead of once in a blue moon. The idea should rub you the wrong way, let alone the reality.
There are however at least 101 uses for TP in prison. Besides the obvious use as Kleenex for blowing your nose it has other uses that you would have thought of at home. TP is used for wedging between the bunk bed and the wall to keep the bed from shaking when your bunkie hops off the top bunk. The average is between 4 – 8 rolls for every bunk. In the higher security levels, the bunks are secured to the floor, so depending on the distance 2 rolls may be squashed together to bridge the gap. In Level I the bunks are generally free range and so a single roll is sufficient since the bunk can be pushed into the wall.
TP is a useful substitute for paper towels in the kitchenette. Paper towels are had to come by so TP is used to clean up the mess left by the previous microwave chef. Wads of TP can serve as pot holders for a hot dish. TP also serves as napkins for wiping fingers and faces.
TP is also used as ear plugs. The housing units are noisy and ear plugs are very helpful for getting a good night’s sleep. If you don’t have a pair of real foam ones that are sold in the commissary then wads of TP stuffed in the ears will work in a pinch. With 160 guys living in a space originally designed for 80 there is a good chance someone in your area either saws logs in their sleep with a chain saw or stays awake all night laughing at the TV or working on their latest rap song.
Partial TP rolls are carelessly abandoned in the bathroom stalls by owners who have dropped them on the filthy floor and do not want to risk contaminating their locker with stray fecal material or rolls that have become wet sponges soaking up sweaty toilet water and urine. More than once I accidentally dropped brand new rolls on the floor of the bathroom. You just have to write them off and move on.
Large commercial rolls in the bathrooms were ruled a fire hazard and removed from the housing units. The metal hardware that was abandoned has become a theft target for those trying to arm themselves. Although few were successful at liberating the metal bars and brackets that were so securely attached that they will still be standing when the building has fallen down around them.
As ubiquitous as TP maybe it sometimes becomes a valuable commodity. When the TP supply runs out in the housing unit a day or two before the supply truck is scheduled to deliver more, guys will resort to theft to get a roll when nature calls. Someone else’s unattended roll left carelessly on a desk or a bunk may become wobbly. Why inconvenience yourself or your bunkie when you can grab someone else’s wedge?
TP rolls constantly fly around when lobbed randomly from cube to cube in an undeclared war over music volume or sports rivalries. This certainly beats the alternative when AA or D cell batteries begin to fly!
TP is hoarded by those who don’t want to do without. But you can’t take it with you. I’ve seen COs fill trash bags full of rolls when shaking down a cube. But as with all the other cat and games that inmates and COs engage in the previous owners of those TP rolls will reload in just a matter of days by hitting up every CO on every shift for rolls from the stash that was relocated from their cube to the officer’s station.
Even the card board box the case of TP is shipped and stored in may have a second life as building materials for art projects or shelving units inside lockers. This card board is considered contraband and the inmates really aren’t supposed to use it. But depending on the whims of the housing unit counselor or COs they my or not make a point of removing these temporary infrastructure improvements. And the cat and mouse nature of the inmate/CO relationship will result in these structures being rebuilt as soon as they are removed like a beaver damning a stream with single-minded determination.
While you might not think of it TP is a useful art supply. More specifically the card board tube at the center of the roll finds a second life as a container for holding colored pencils or pens. It may also become a work of art by incorporating the stiff card board into building structures created by hobby craft enthusiasts.
TP my not be the most glamorous thing but you certainly miss it when the nice 2-p1y that so many enjoy in the free world is not available. There was a better grade of TP available for $0.78 per roll in the commissary, but when most inmates don’t have any source of outside support and the average pay for prison jobs is less than $1 per day, the price for TP puts it out of reach. Also compared to the $0.50 per roll or less that most people pay in the free the prison cost makes it a luxury item with a 50% mark-up.