Federal Prisoner Tells Me About Filthy Conditions In His Cell: Inmates Must Buy Soap Despite Virus Threat

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California says conditions inside Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles often are filthy - an allegation the L.A. County Sheriff's Department denies.

VICE reported finding  “horrible physical conditions—from pests to raw sewage” in a 2019 story spotlighting conditions inside  the federal detention center in Manhattan.  (ACLU photo.)

(3-16-20) Like cruise ships and nursing homes, jails and prisons are prime breeding grounds for deadly outbreaks of the coronavirus. So, I was shocked this week when the Treatment Advocacy Center’s CEO John Snook relayed a message to me about how the federal Bureau of Prisons is reportedly charging inmates for soap.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that 705,600 mentally ill adults were incarcerated in state prisons, 78,800 in federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails. That was in 2006 and, since then, the numbers have been growing. It is generally accepted that 383,000 prisoners across the country have a serious mental illness.

Shortly after the Covid-19 virus began making headlines, I received a letter from a prisoner being held in the BOP’s Administrative Maximum Facility (the ADMAX), the most secure unit in our nation located in Florence, Colorado.

Every three months, he explained, prisoners are moved into new isolation cells for security reasons. He was moved abruptly without explanation recently, being sent to a different cell on a Thursday. He immediately asked for cleaning supplies but was refused. Minimal cleaning supplies are dispensed on Wednesdays at the ADMAX, he wrote, so he had to wait even though his cell was filthy.

“When I entered, I turned to assess the damage and sweat needed to scrub my new cell without detergent, nor much needed disinfectant. I alway look at the toilet/sink comb when entering a random cell since it’s usually the nastiest thing in need of cleaning. Then the shower, where some guys masturbate, blow their nose, spit, piss, etc., and rarely clean, so the shiny stainless steel is buried in months and years of fossilized slime. Dog pound kennels are hygienically more human than our ADX cells. Not that animals deserve less. It’s just bewildering how some Americans demand better treatment for another species, than they do for our own.

“Imagine a toilet bowl that hasn’t been cleaned in weeks, months, covered with some stranger’s feces that you must remove with your bare hands, without soap to wash your hands afterward; to try to kill the germs and stink off of them.

The shit in some urinals is literally caked on and petrified. It not only reeks, the sight makes you wanna vomit – while thinking of how many dirty diseased prisoners with AIDs, Hep-C, etc. had graced that filthy seat. The sink is revolting too. It appears that the inmate who occupied it perviously left behind hairs from all over his body without cleaning up.

This new cell is so nasty, no telling how many folks also were denied cleaning supplies or simply gave up.

Although promised cleaning supplies each Wednesday, as I write this, my unit hasn’t had supplies in two months.

A prison orderly is supposed to clean the tier and, occasionally, empty cells before someone moves in. (Which should have been done in this cell.) They are only given a mop/bucket of water and towel, a green pad, and window spray. Get this. The same mop used for superficially cleaning up feces is routinely used to mop the tier afterwards.

ADX is a germ-infested nightmare!

The 15-inch by 10-inch mirror directly above the sink in my new cell is scratched up, as many ADXC mirrors are. When I first got here, I couldn’t understand why someone would do that. At first, I assumed it was because out of rage, a prisoner destroyed the mirror, ruining it for the next occupant. But now, I wonder if the scratches are made by the mentally ill trying desperately to escape the maddening voices and faces in their head haunting them.”

Dr. Amanda Klonsky (@amandaklonsky1), chief program officer for the Petey Greene Program, which offers educational classes in prisons, warned in a recent New York Times editorial that Jails and Prisons will be at the “Epicenter of Pandemic” unless localities, states and the federal government immediately take steps to prevent the spread.

Punishment is supposed to be isolation from society. It is not supposed to be having your health put at risk because you have no money to buy soap.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.