There’s no more private area of our lives than what we do in the bathroom. It`s no surprise, then, that the most common question I`m asked about prison is how the bathrooms and showers work. Here`s 5 things you need to know about prison bathrooms and showers.
1. There`s No Such Thing as Privacy in Prison
It`s probably not a shocker that there`s no privacy in prison. The odd thing, however, is that the lower the security level, the less privacy you`ll have. In medium- and high-security prisons, the cells have doors and there`s a sink and toilet in the room. You can shut your door and use the toilet with a decent amount of privacy. There`s a little window on the door but you put up a “flag” by sticking some toilet paper in the door jamb to let others know you`re “busy.”
There`s no shower in your room, though, so you`ll need to use the showers in the common area, as it`s called. The feds usually have shower stalls with half doors or curtains, regardless of the security level. In lower-security federal prisons, where there`s no toilet in the room, I`ve seen everything from stalls for toilets, like you`d see in public bathrooms, to short “walls” dividing the toilets that are just 5 cinderblocks tall (40″).
It`s been a slow process, but the BOP has been providing more privacy for transgender prisoners, mainly by providing longer shower curtains and stall doors. But they haven`t done anything about the open toilets yet.
2. Everything Happens in the Prison Bathroom
The prison bathroom is like a gathering place. There`s no cameras so it seems everything happens in there. People will have sex in the shower stalls, do drugs in the toilet stalls, fight, workout, give haircuts, cook, do laundry, and all sorts of other things. The basic rule is that if you ignore them then they ignore you.
It`s not uncommon to see someone wear boots to the shower. They call this being “strapped up” in case a fight breaks out and they might need to handle it. It`s hard to fight in sandals, the preferred footwear while taking a shower. You never, ever want to go barefoot in a prison shower (see above if you need a reminder on why …).
3. Everything is Metal and Concrete in a Prison Bathroom
The types of fixtures in a prison bathroom depends on the purpose of the facility. County jails and federal detention centers usually have these metal toilet-sink combo things that are functional but inconvenient. There`s this little sink on the back of the toilet that`s really a water fountain. You push a button and get (usually cold) water for about 20 seconds. There`s also a metal mirror that`s useless.
In longer-term facilities, the fixtures are often porcelain, like those in public bathrooms. Sometimes there will be normal mirrors, but more modern prisons (since the 1990s) install those useless metal mirrors. Get yourself a portable mirror on commissary. It`s worth the $3.00. You`ll also have faucets, rather than push-buttons with timers, on these fixtures in the regular prisons.
Speaking of timers, some BOP prisons have installed timers on the toilets and showers. I saw toilets in Atlanta USP that allowed 3 flushes and then you had to wait 10 minutes. At the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, they had 5-minute timers on the shower — not even enough time to get hot water. Thankfully, these things are not the norm in the BOP.
4. Pack a Bag and Bring it With You to the Bathroom
There`s no supplies at all in a prison bathroom. And I mean nothing: no toilet paper, soap, paper towels, etc. Bring all of this with you in a bag when you go to the bathroom. You`ll be given a roll of toilet paper every week or so. If you want more than that, you`ll have to make a deal with someone who has extra. Soap is sold on commissary and the best way to dry your hands is with a rag — your own rag and not one left on the counter to wipe the sink.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the BOP began providing soap and hand sanitizer. How long this will last nobody knows. I hear they`ve stopped handing out napkins in the chow hall to save money. Soap costs way more than napkins.
Some guys bring a chair to the shower to hold their clean clothes. It makes sense, since everyone hangs their dirty clothes on the curtain or door. And forget about using a soap dish. It opens in your bag and makes a mess. I suggest using a peanut butter jar. You can fit a bar of soap and razor in it, and it seals shut. Besides, nobody steals a peanut butter jar, but they will snag a soap dish.
5. Bathroom Etiquette Keeps the Peace in Prison
Prison bathrooms are surprisingly clean. This is mainly because the guys who clean the bathrooms are the ones who use them. The BOP has “orderlies” who take care of all areas of the prison. The bathroom orderlies make more money because of the nasty work (maybe $20 to $30 a month). I even saw one unit that pressure-washed the bathrooms once a week. They were spotless.
One way to keep things clean is not to use a sit-down toilet for stand-up business. Except for the toilets in the cells at higher-security prisons, there are urinals in the bathrooms at lower-security spots. If you must use a toilet for stand-up business, wipe the rim with toilet paper. Some guys will always sit on a toilet just to avoid any potential mess. It works on sailboats, so why not!
You`ve heard of courtesy flushes, but they`re more than just “courtesy” in prison, they`re expected. It covers up certain noises and cuts down on odors. If there`s no timer on the toilet, flush continuously. It really helps. People will thank you, as well.
If the sink is one of several in an open bathroom, it`s ok to spit your toothpaste in the sink. But in your room with a roommate, spit in the toilet until you guys agree to use the sink. Don`t assume it`s ok. I`ve seen fights over this stuff!
That about wraps up the big points you need to know about prison bathrooms. If I missed something, let me know.
Dale Chappell is the author of hundreds of published articles on the federal criminal justice system, and the Insider`s Guide series of federal post-conviction books. He is a federal litigation consultant with the Zoukis Consulting Group. Follow his blog at www.zenlawguy.com and on Twitter at @zenlawguy.