America doesn’t treat the people in its prisons like people, and everyone’s losing

We don’t spend too much time thinking about women in prison. We especially don’t spend too much time thinking about whether those women are able to meet their basic hygiene necessities. And when we hear that this isn’t the case — women are in fact being systematically dehumanized in our prison systems via the withholding of hygiene products — many shrug their shoulders. Or, worse yet, tell themselves that they have it coming.

York Correctional Institute in Conneticut gives bunkmates five pads a week to split, which works out to ten per month per inmate. This is nowhere near adequate, and can lead to women being forced to wear the same pad for consecutive days (for most women, they need to be replaced after mere hours). It shouldn’t be necessary to explain why this is a serious health hazard. The health of prisoners should be taken seriously, and bodily functions do not miraculously change or cease depending on what suits the prison’s policy. Some prisons have systems where women can buy their hygiene products, but:

… most inmates can’t afford to buy pads ($2.63 for a 24-pack) when they’re spending the 75 cents they earn for a day’s work on other necessities like deodorant (which costs $1.93, three days’ pay), toothpaste ($1.50, two days’ pay), or food that’s more edible than what’s offered in the dining hall. At some prisons, prices are higher, with eight tampons costing $4.23 thanks to a privatized commissary. But even when inmates have the money to buy feminine hygiene supplies, commissaries routinely understock and women are left waiting for a week or two, rendering the pads irrelevant for another month. Toilet paper is also rationed, so crafting homemade toilet-paper pads means forgoing wiping.

Forcing prisoners to scrimp and save to afford the tools to meet their basic human needs, and routinely failing to meet the demand, is more than cruel and unnecessary. It sets them up for humiliating failure. As Ronen continues:

One among many problems listed was the jail’s refusal to provide adequate feminine hygiene products, forcing inmates to routinely bleed through their clothes and not providing them a change of clothes until laundry day. When one inmate requested supplies, an officer told her she was “shit out of luck” and “better not bleed on the floor.

Treating female sanitary products as if they are luxuries, or not necessary, is an outrage. No, they haven’t existed for all of human history and aren’t crucial to survival, but neither are clothes, beds or glasses. You would be in serious trouble for denying prisoners any of those.

criminal prison orange jumpsuit jail prisoner convict

Criminal via Shutterstock

Female hygiene products aren’t the only necessities being denied to prisoners. At a Kalamazoo County Jail in Michigan, prisoners were not given toilet paper, forcing male inmates to, in the words of one officer, “wipe it with your hands and quit crying. It could be worse.”

Sure, it could be worse. Anything in any situation could be worse. The fact that their treatment could be somehow more horrible doesn’t make its horribleness acceptable. As Timothy Hamilton, one of the prisoners involved, described:

I keep playing it over and over in my head…now I buy too much tissue so I won’t run out at home. Now mentally I have fear of running out..the officers got to the point they were like, ‘the whole (expletive) jail is out so quit (expletive) asking.”

What’s more, it’s not as if the officers were merely frustrated at their institution’s lack of resources. As if they were pulled straight from Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment, they enjoyed humiliating the inmates. As Hamilton continued, “the officers were making jokes, ‘Wipe your ass like monkeys do.’ That was very painful to hear.”

Last time I checked, judges weren’t in the habit of tacking on dehumanizing penalties in addition to prison sentences. What’s more, the dehumanization is worse than counterproductive. America has the largest prison population in the world. It is bizarre and self-defeating to treat these prisoners like animals and expect them to function as people when they reenter society.

Countries with the best rehabilitation rates, such as Norway, are countries that let prisoners keep their dignity. They are also, not coincidentally, the countries that don’t privatize their prison systems such that toilet paper — to say nothing of rehabilitated prisoners that don’t wind up back behind bars — are expenditures that put dents in quarterly earnings.

Nothing turns a non-violent offender into a violent offender faster than sending them to prison, and the subhuman conditions at American prisons are one of the reasons why. If we’re serious when we say that we want to rehabilitate the people in our prisons, we need to treat them like people while they’re there.


Holly Blackler is a University student in the final year of her degree, which is a double major in Political Science and Philosophy with a minor in Media. She writes on a variety of things, but focuses on social issues and international events.

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11 Responses to “America doesn’t treat the people in its prisons like people, and everyone’s losing”

  1. devlzadvocate says:

    It seems that our entire way of thinking is the problem. We let “the system in control” (i.e. government, corporations, we have no courtesy for each other,etc.) treat us poorly. So, we view ourselves as “the system in control of prisoners” (possibly because we have such little control over things in our own lives?) and heap all of that poor treatment on those who have even less control over their lives than we do. There is a comparison to Norway, with a high respect and rate of happiness among all unincarcerated citizens. No surprise that the prison population is treated better. Better societies treat prisoners better. Chances are we won’t change prisons until we do something about how we see ourselves.

  2. Holly Blackler says:

    I can see where some people would get that idea, thinking it would be luxurious to have so much free time (when the reality is that many prisoners are working long hours, and it’s hardly a place filled with entertainment).

  3. nicho says:

    I don’t know what you mean by “trolling.” I was serious. I have heard people say that they thought prison was like a vacation.

  4. Bill_Perdue says:

    The main problem is that all the wrong people are in prison.

    Member of Congress who accept bribes or otherwise illegally generate extra income are criminals.

    People who start illegal wars of aggression like the Clintons, the Bushes and Obama and their cabinets and Chiefs of Staff are criminals.

    Banksters and business owners who cut wages, issue predatory loans and bust unions are criminals.

    Killer cops and the judges and prospectors who ignore their crimes and thus encourage more murders of people of color, women and other working people are criminals.

  5. Don Chandler says:

    I know you are trolling a bit in this post. But I was in the hospital awhile back and shared a room with a prisoner. I had a moment to chat with him. He told me the hospital was like a vacation from prison. He got to watch tv and the food was much much better ;) I was having a completely different experience in the hospital. They wouldn’t release me until I showed signs of getting better (pooping) and they threatened to put a tube up my nose and down into the stomach….I told them I was walking around the ward and saw the elevators and seriously considered “escape”. I was trolling them a bit and they laughed and let me go home to heal. They also let the prisoner go home to his cell…seemed like an okay guy. Felt for him. Maybe folks should go to prison and work as a prison guard for a day. They might see two sides of a sad tale. There is little empathy for prisoners because they have shown little empathy for people. But they are people and basic services should be available.

    So the solution, you can go to jury duty or make a tour of the prisons or community service in the hospital. But you must do one of the three!

  6. nicho says:

    I agree. A lot of people think that prison is just a kind of vacation. Where you get to lay around all day in a luxurious cell, watching TV and being fed great food.

  7. nicho says:

    People are sent to prison as punishment — not for punishment.

  8. greenman47 says:

    I doubt that this will gain much traction, but as a result of my own numerous erroneous incarcerations (long story) I have firmly believed that anyone who enacts laws should spend a day (or more) going through the “justice” system and experiencing it from the inside before being qualified to pass criminal sanctions.

  9. goulo says:

    Yep… It’s truly sad and mind-boggling that “the land of liberty” is far and away #1 in
    prison population (both in absolute numbers and per capita) and that so
    many US citizens seem to think this is a fine way to “prevent” crime, and seem to think that the primary purpose of a prison is simply to viciously punish people convicted of crimes (regardless of the crime). (And then there’s the issue that many prisoners are innocent and wrongly convicted…)

    And yeah, that whole insanity of more and more prisons being privatized and run for profit… sigh.

    Coincidentally I just read a good enlightening interview with Maya Schenwar about the US prison system in The Sun magazine, the first part of which is readable online:
    http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/474/criminal_injustice_maya_schenwar

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