Saturday, March 7, 2015

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Prisons: Washing the Dirty Laundry

Alex Cavendish takes his readers into the unlaundered world of the prison laundry. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.


Sorry to disappoint those readers who were hoping for an internal exposé of the prison system in this post, but I thought it was time I wrote about how the laundry actually gets done inside our jails. It’s a subject I’ve rarely seen mentioned, even by other cons in their memoirs or blogs. However, for those seeking some real scandals in our jails, read on to the end. You may learn a few home truths that will turn your stomach.

Plenty of dirty laundry in prisons
The first thing to point out is that when you herd hundreds of people together in confinement, they will generate a great deal of dirty washing: clothes, towels and bedding. Trying to keep prisoners – and their cells – clean and hygienic isn’t just about good order, it can also help to cut down on the spread of infections and diseases – with which some prisons can be rife.

Broadly speaking, prison washing is divided into two specific types: ‘kit’ and ‘private clothing’. As the names suggest, the former is anything that has been issued by the prison, while the latter consists of clothes, bedding or other washable items that are the personal property of individual prisoners.

Prison-issue bedding
Issued bedding includes two green poly-cotton bed sheets, one pillow-case, one bright orange blanket (two if you are over 60 or disabled) and one ‘fire blanket’ (a heavy green canvas sheet). I’ve never really worked out what the fire blanket is supposed to be used for. Most cons use it as a top cover for the bed, but I imagine that in the event of a fire in your cell it could be used to smother the flames. I’ve never seen it used for such a purpose, however.

Prison clothing these days various from nick to nick. Most stores are supposed to have a stock of blue jeans, grey jogging bottoms and matching sweatshirts (occasionally in maroon), blue or maroon t-shirts, grey socks and light blue boxer shorts. Some also issue traditional blue and white striped shirts for visits (think Fletcher in Porridge). I have occasionally seen short denim jackets, but these 1970s throwbacks are now pretty rare. 

Prison shirt in Porridge
In addition to the above, prisons also supply two white or green towels (light blue ones tend to be issued for use in the gym showers). They are also supposed to provide pyjamas, although I’ve never, ever seen any on offer in any stores in the prisons I was in.

On top of the personal kit issued, prisons also have a range of clothes for work: kitchen whites for prisoners working in catering or the serving of food, overalls for those working in maintenance, ‘greens’ for prisoners who are cleaners or wing painters, plus innumerable coloured t-shirts and polo shirts for those cons who do special jobs. These include Insiders (peer mentors), Listeners, Toe by Toe mentors (adult literacy), wing reps, violence reduction reps (anti-bullying), diversity and equality reps… and so on. All of these garments need to be washed.

One a week – often on a Friday after lunch – most nicks hold a session called “kit change”. This is the opportunity to bring a set amount of prison-issued clothing, bedding and towels to be handed in for washing. As each con hands over his contribution, together with a small paper slip detailing what he is handing in, this slip is signed off – either by a wing orderly or by a screw. He can then report to the wing stores to collect fresh kit to replace the items sent to the laundry.

Prison laundry slip
There is always a gamble with handing over kit for washing: you can never predict in what condition the replacements will be. I’ve handed in perfectly good condition bed sheets and had rags full of enormous holes given to me in return. The important thing to remember is you never get back the same kit as you hand in. This means that if you hand in boxer shorts, for example, you will get back pairs that have previously been worn by dozens – perhaps hundreds of other blokes. Ditto with socks, sometimes complete with fungal infections, broken off toenails or stains from the last wearer’s open sores.

Now we come the real exposé of this blog post. I spent some months working as a slave in a prison laundry at a large inner city Cat-B nick, so I’ve seen what really goes on for myself. In fact, I am the proud possessor of a full set of SATRA professional laundry qualifications. In the unlikely event that I should ever feel the urge to do so, I am now qualified to operate most industrial laundry processes. 

Some prisons don’t have their own laundries these days, so they ship their dirty washing out to neighbouring establishments. I’ve done the washing for at least five different nicks, including one immigration detention centre.

Most prison laundries are running on a wing and a prayer. Massive industrial washing machines and driers are often old or reconditioned. Nothing new has been bought for years. We experienced frequent breakdowns and malfunctions. Sometimes there was no washing liquid fed into the machines, at other times the steam feed failed and the laundry in the washers went through the cycles cold. 

Prison washing machines: can malfunction
While this might not be a major problem at home, in an industrial setting, it can prove to be potentially disastrous. Many prison garments come into the laundries heavily soiled. Some are soaked in human urine, faeces, semen or mucus; other items are contaminated by fresh blood, which can carry and transmit a range of infectious diseases. A significant number of adult prisoners are actually incontinent, either as a result of illness, age or mental health problems. Dealing with bedding that has been wet in the night is a daily chore in most prison laundries. 

In our prison system we also have to deal with a fair amount of blood, sometimes lots of it. Plenty of prisoners cope with their sentences through regular self-harming, often involving cutting their own flesh. At other times there might have been a serious fight between cons or a suspected grass might have been cut with razor blades. Prison towels and sheets are then used to mop up the blood.

Bio-hazard laundry bags
Although officially, bio-hazards were supposed to be dealt with in a sealed, dissolvable bag – and an outer sack marked with a red stripe to indicate danger – in reality, there was often no means of separating such garments from the rest. Generally speaking, everything tended to be piled in together. This meant that health and safety measures were defective from the start. 

When washing machines fail to reach the correct temperatures this also means that potential infections – such as scabies, where tiny mites burrow into human skin – may not have been eliminated. Periodically, prisons do get outbreaks of such highly contagious infections. It’s all very scary, really.

However, what was even more worrying is that this prison laundry didn’t just take washing in from other prisons, it also had a number of commercial contracts with local restaurants, cafés and wedding venues. This means that although batches of their towels, tablecloths and napkins were processed separately from prison-issue kit, the same contaminated laundry barrows and machines were used indiscriminately. There was never time for a ‘service wash’ to clean the machines in between loads of prison and external washing.

Laundry barrows: sometimes leaking urine
I’ve seen prison laundry barrows leaking human urine being used for external contract washes on many occasions. I often wondered if diners at these exclusive eateries would be so enthusiastic about sitting at tables set with cloths, or wiping their mouths with napkins, that have been washed and dried in machines that had been used immediately beforehand for prison garments covered in human faeces, possibly contaminated blood, semen or infectious mucus – not to mention scabies mites. 

As the restaurants’ tablecloths and napkins were passed through the giant calendar (a rotary ironing machine), cons on duty had the less than pleasant task of picking off human hairs – pubic and otherwise – that had attached themselves to the items in the massive industrial tumble driers. No-one wore gloves and some cons working on these machines had themselves nasty skin infections or diarrhoea. 

Bon appétit: prison fresh linen
As soon as each item had been ironed smooth, it was packed into a crate ready for delivery back to the café or restaurant.  And to think that the owners of these catering businesses were paying good money for this service… Next time you dine out, it might pay to ask whether the restaurant or café of your choice gets its table and kitchen linen laundered at the local prison laundry.

Clothing for prisoners was treated even less carefully. Some of the garments that came out of the laundry were still heavily stained with human waste or were so tattered that they were only fit for use as cleaning rags. Nevertheless, within a few days this clothing would be on the bodies of prisoners because of the ‘take it or leave it’ policy in the stores. Not happy with the old boxer shorts you’ve been given because of the disgusting stains from human waste? Well then you can ‘go commando’ (not wear any underpants) until the next kit change. Your choice!

As things stand, pretty much every male prisoner now experiences this sort of humiliation, especially during the first two weeks or so of their sentences. The new Entry level of the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme introduced from 1 September 2013 via PSI 20/2013 has forced all male prisoners into prison kit as a purely punitive measure (all women cons are exempt and can wear their own clothes at all times). 

Work gear
Many prisons then allow cons to have their own clothes back again as soon as they get onto Standard level. However, a fair few Cat-B locals don’t have the facilities to wash much private clothing on the wings, so in at least three of these nicks a prisoner will have to wait a further three months to attain Enhanced level before being able to wear their own clothes. In the meantime, they will have to make do with the often filthy and unhygienic kit handed out by the stores.

Quite a few prisoners who do manage to get issued with a decent set of prison gear will never exchange it. They will either simply wear what they have until it stinks or else try to hand-wash items in the cell sinks. In fact, the canteen sheets in most nicks actually sell cheap washing powder for this purpose. Then they try to dry their clothing on the hot water pipes or from the bars in the cell windows. That’s why prison landings often smell damp and musty.

Of course for those cons who have money there is often a very different level of service available: so-called “private washes”. This is where the wing laundry orderly collects your clothes from your cell at your convenience, washes them separately in a clean machine on the wing, using your own washing powder and softner and then returns them neatly folded – or if you pay for the deluxe service, even ironed. The usual tariff was a couple of tins of canteen tuna or some bars of chocolate. Unsurprisingly, to be wing laundry orderly was a very desirable, profitable and hotly contested job in every prison I’ve been in.
Fees for a private wash...
Moreover, stores orderlies were not above corruption and, should a fresh consignment of brand new prison clothing arrive, for a small consideration they would ensure that you received new boxers, socks and t-shirts in the appropriate sizes. So come kit change day, there would be no stained, grubby, ill-fitting clothing for the well-heeled elite cons of the wing.

As with so many of the punitive policies introduced by Chris Grayling, those who are really suffering are usually the prisoners at the bottom of the pecking order: the ones who really are penniless and have nothing with which to trade. But then, isn’t that the whole philosophy of the free market?