But one detail surprised me.
“As far as Counsel is aware,” the motion declares, describing the conditions at the medium-security prison where Finnestad is being held, “hand sanitizer at FCI Sheridan is simply not available as it is contraband. Soap is not provided to inmates, but rather must be purchased. Strangely, a bar of soap is no longer going to appear on commissary alone, but instead must be purchased with a more expensive hygiene packet.”
Wait a minute, I thought, prisoners have to buy their own soap?
During pandemics and normal times alike, one piece of public-health advice remains unchanged: Wash your hands often, with warm, soapy water, especially after using the bathroom or before eating. Even the Federal Bureau of Prisons declares in its 2018 guidelines on influenza epidemics, “Educate staff and inmates that the following measures help protect against the spread of influenza: Regular hand washing—especially after sneezing, coughing, or touching the face.”
But at the federal, state, and local level, the provision of soap varies widely among lockup facilities, and many prisoners lack access to soap unless they buy it themselves in a commissary. The result is almost certainly more illness, treated at taxpayer expense, than would spread under a regime of free soap and institutional encouragement of frequent hand-washing behind bars.
Prior to this month, I’d never heard about that wrinkle of life in prison, despite having interviewed dozens of prisoners over the years and following criminal-justice-reform efforts relatively consistently. But as coronavirus fears spread among incarcerated people and those advocating on their behalf, I’ve heard again and again about soap.
Homer Venters, the former head of the New York City Correctional Health Services, told The Christian Science Monitor that most jails and prisons he’s been to in the United States don’t have enough sinks or soap.
ABC News reported that the Federal Bureau of Prisons is running low on hand sanitizer, soap, and masks, but can’t get more “due to backorder,” a shortage that affects both staff and inmates.
Before COVID-19 cases spiked in New York City jails, the Legal Aid Society reported that some inmates there lacked access to soap. In Ohio, “indigent inmates are issued two bars of soap a month, while other prisoners can purchase soap from the commissary,” the site CorrectionsOne notes, adding that in Georgia, the Department of Corrections says extra soap is being placed in every unit, “but inmates and their relatives across the state say they haven’t received extra soap and haven’t seen increased sanitation efforts.” (A nonprofit organization is purchasing soap for prisoners in Georgia.)
In Illinois, Jobi Cates, the executive director of Restore Justice, told the Chicago public-radio station WBEZ that “we’re getting reports of inmates using their own soap that they’ve purchased through their commissary to clean common areas themselves. Once that runs out, where is it coming from?”