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Hygiene Products Running Low in Prisons as State Contracts Lapse

Texas prisons are running low on hygiene products that are not considered necessities for inmates, including toothpaste and deodorant. Family members and inmates are frustrated as state officials try to find a contractor.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
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Former inmate Jorge Renaud remembers how the purchases he made from the prison commissary, little things like toothpaste and deodorant, made life in a cell, often with another prisoner, a little less uncomfortable.

For thousands of inmates in the Texas prison system today, though, those hygiene items are simply not available, due to a lapse in state contracts with outside providers. They are not considered necessities by the administration, but from time to time shortages lead to complaints by prisoners and their family members.

For the roughly 151,000 inmates in the Texas prison system, there are 1,800 units of deodorant and 28,000 units of toothpaste left, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice figures. Deodorant can also be purchased as a part of hygiene packs, which include shampoo and conditioner. There are about 10,600 of those left.

At Texas prisons, inmates are automatically entitled to soap, razors and toothbrushes with 3-inch safety handles, in addition to their clothing and three meals a day. If they want deodorant or toothpaste, they have to buy it at the commissary. In 2010, a stick of deodorant cost $1.85, and toothpaste cost between $1.20 and $2 per tube, according to a commissary price list.

“Offenders are still able to purchase hygiene products from the commissary,” said Jason Clark, spokesman for TDCJ, while also acknowledging that supplies are low. He said these commissary items are not considered necessities, and are procured from outside vendors. Soap, which is considered a necessity, is produced by the prison system, in a factory at the Roach Unit in Childress.

“It's been cold, so I don't know it’s that big an issue,” Jennifer Erschabek, Austin director of the Texas Inmate Families Association, said of the deodorant and toothpaste shortage. “But I think it just tends to frustrate people, because they feel like it's something necessary to maintain their hygiene.”

A state contract with Colgate-Palmolive Company expired at the end of August 2012. Since then, the Texas Procurement and Support Services Division at the state comptroller’s office has been advertising for bids from contractors who want to provide deodorant, said comptroller's office spokesman R.J. DeSilva. The most recent bid opening date was last Thursday. Neither the comptroller's office nor TDCJ explained why the contract lapsed. In the meantime, TDCJ has been making "spot purchases," according to Clark, but it was not able to complete the procurement process before supplies started running low.

"There's not an easy workaround," Erschabek added. "It's just state red tape and then a breakdown in the process."

The call for bids specifies that the men’s deodorant must come in units of 1.5 to 3.5 ounces and be produced by one of five brands: Gillette, Arm and Hammer, Suave, Mennen or Old Spice.

Inmates without toothpaste are given a tooth powder. “Not a good thing,” Erschabek said, “but it’s something.”

Renaud, who now works with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, wrote in a guide to life in Texas prisons that at many prison facilities, inmates are required to shower between 6 and 8 a.m. “Since inmates are going to be recreating and sweating all day,” he explained, “this makes for some uncomfortable — not to mention smelly — situations.”

He said that many inmates are indigent and can't afford deodorant or toothpaste, anyway. The ones with money, he said, buy two or three deodorant sticks or toothpaste tubes at a time and trade them away during a shortage to other inmates. "Maybe they work in the kitchen and will bring you peanut butter or they'll give you 10 stamps," he said. "It's an economy."

It is not known which prison facilities are out of deodorant, but the sister of one inmate at the Price Daniel Unit, a facility housing up to 1,300 inmates near Abilene, said prisoners there have been unable to buy deodorant for several weeks. She declined to be named, citing worries that her brother would face retaliation.

Former prisoner Lonnie Brown received a letter from an inmate at the Lynaugh Unit, which houses up to 1,400 inmates in Fort Stockton, who reported that prisoners there had been unable to buy toothpaste and other hygiene products for the last two months. "Our store is screwed up again," the letter stated. "Inmates are annoyed, more than usual." 

Deborah Munson-Cardenas, whose husband Jaime Cardenas is serving a life sentence for capital murder at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston and works at the unit’s commissary, said there are troubling inconsistencies in the availabilities of certain hygiene items. And some prisoners' family members have complained about the shortages on public discussion forums

But for most prisoners, hygiene items are hardly the biggest worry during their time in prison, said former inmate Renaud. "It's not something people bitch about that much," he said. "You get stinky and what do you do? It's not life-threatening."

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Courts Criminal justice State government State agencies Texas Department Of Criminal Justice