Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
The white stuff. It’s unlikely that you haven’t bought some, looked for some or checked your own stash this past week. Possibly for the first time in your life, you wondered when your luck would run out, leaving you with an empty tube and a crusty orifice.
If you’re out of or running low on toilet paper, now you know what daily life is like in prison. A prison sentence is just a stack of 24-hour bundles of preoccupation over how you’re going to wipe yourself. When I was incarcerated, one of the kitchen supervisors gave me five rolls because I had been worried that my last seven sheets wouldn’t get me through the night. I’ve probably never been closer to getting mugged in my life than I was going down that walkway carrying those five skimpy, one-ply cylinders. Women were envious; they didn’t have much back in their cells, either.
People have wondered out loud why everyone would scurry toward the toilet paper and hoard it as protection against the COVID-19 coronavirus when it’s not officially scarce and canned beans, frozen broccoli florets and milk would sustain them better should the supply chain suffer disruption. Psychologists offer theories on this behavior: It’s a means of control in uncertain times.
They’re only partially right. Piling up the paper is a means of feeling human and respectable - because you’re able to keep yourself clean.
I’m willing to bet that the questioners and the shrinks never sat in dirty underwear, unable to engage in the simplest hygiene protocols, scooting their rear end around their chair like a dog that needs its anal glands expressed. I fully admit that I have. In prison, my lack of cleanliness reminded me that decisions were no longer mine.
Sitting in my own filth also taught me that wherever you find people panicking about toilet paper, some oppressive regime is coming to power.
We saw it in concentration camps in Nazi Germany; no toilet paper. Reports of the same thing emanate from detention centers where undocumented people await adjudication of their asylum claims and can’t get tissue.
It happens so often in prisons that an entire canon of case law has developed from inmates who sued because guards wouldn’t release a roll. There’s Kenneth Young, who took the staff at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to court for refusing him toilet tissue when he had diarrhea. Guards at Oklahoma State Penitentiary gave Carl Mitchell one square at a time, took his prescription eyeglasses and refused him writing tools to write a grievance about it. Spencer Harris sued the state of Illinois, alleging that the staff denied him toilet paper for five days. The state’s defense? They denied him TP for only four days.
I hope Young, Mitchell and Harris are each sitting on a stack of Charmin so high right now that the coronavirus sees their tissue fortresses and decides to commit hari-kari on a soap bubble. Even if it doesn’t protect them from COVID-19, collecting these hygiene supplies will protect their mental health.
COVID-19 is as fascistic as any Führer. It’s taking lives, causing people to hide and wear humiliating accessories (the mask), and directing their choices while causing widespread trauma. To me, it only makes sense to stockpile any type of wipe. People know they’re about to be dehumanized in some way in the unfortunately necessary response to this virus, and they’re going to retain their dignity by keeping their butts clean.
I bought six industrial size rolls myself. My advice is to get your toilet paper, as much as you can. Spare several squares to those who need, but go ahead and save it so long as you cherish it. Prize it. That soft circle that rolls away from you while you’re seated on the bowl is your freedom.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.