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Working in the Alcatraz laundry room
Working in the Alcatraz laundry room (Photo credit: GGNRA, Park Archives, GOGA-3264)

Prisoners do not have the luxury of going to a laundromat and handling our own clothes. Instead, we have a clothes exchange. We hand in our dirty clothes to be laundered and, in return, we receive clean clothes. 

That’s how it works in theory. 

But sometimes that “clean” laundry includes shit-stained garments, sheets sullied with blood, and missing articles of clothing have a huge effect on the well-being of prisoners inside. Laundry day can often be a traumatic experience inside prison. 

At my closed-custody facility in North Carolina, each prisoner in the rehabilitative diversion program is issued: three pairs of brown pants; six gray, tagless T-shirts; six pairs of white socks; two washcloths; one towel; and a bedroll consisting of two white sheets and a pillowcase. 

The clothes exchange is on Mondays. Prisoners are provided a white bag for collecting dirty clothes, and a “cell card” indicating their cell number and unit location. 

Beginning at 10 a.m. Monday, residents turn in their dirty laundry bag along with their lunch tray (it’s an early lunch). The bag, which contains each resident’s cell card, is then placed in a laundry cart manned by an incarcerated worker. 

Later, another incarcerated clothing warehouse worker empties the dirty clothes from the laundry bags. He counts how many articles of clothing were in each bag and relays that information to another clothing warehouse worker. The clothes are laundered. It is that last worker who then refills the laundry bags with the clean clothes. 

After the noon count, the cart containing prisoners’ clothes will be returned to the block. Each laundry bag will be placed in front of the cell with the prisoner’s cell number. Residents then check their bag to ensure they got back what they dropped off. 

We are often disappointed.

On each unit there are three blocks with 30 prisoners each, half upstairs and half downstairs. Throughout a block, it is not uncommon to hear on clothes exchange day something like this: “I have six pairs of boxers with ‘the streaks’” — shit stains — “in every pair.”

One prisoner, who we call Port City since he’s from Wilmington, North Carolina, constantly reminds us that he refuses “to wear boxes that another man’s ass and nuts have been in.” Often the clothes returned to us aren’t ours — they’re just the same size.

My nagging neighbor reminds me every clothes exchange day that his washcloth contains pubic hairs that aren’t his (they’re not the same hair color, he says). And it’s not just my neighbor. Other residents I know also receive undergarments and washcloths littered with pubic hairs.

My pet peeve is the sheets. It’s as if the rust- and blood-stained bed linens are reserved just for me. And I am often returned sheets riddled with long holes made by prisoners with nail clippers; the shreds of linen extracted from the sheets, known as “fishing lines,” are used to transport contraband items between cells upstairs and downstairs.  

The tagless gray tees are also shredded. Prisoners use the thread in the shirts to make hair ties to hold their dreadlocks in place. 

And often buttons and straps are missing from our prison-issued brown pants. We are not allowed to have belts in a closed-custody facility, so the pants we wear have a small six-inch black strap on each side that we pull to tighten the pants around our waist. Many of the younger prisoners prefer not to use the black straps and instead walk around the block with their ass hanging out.

Another traumatic experience on clothes exchange day is having to report missing items to a corrections officer. On a recent clothes exchange day, I was missing a bundle of socks. When I reported this to the officer, he said, “We’re busy right now. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

His comment enraged me. I needed to take a shower that day, and I would not have clean socks to put on my feet. I could have asked another prisoner for a pair. But I had followed protocol: I turned in six pairs of socks and expected six clean pairs in return. I did not expect the officer’s dismissive tone, or for him to shrug me off as if my request was not legitimate. 

I did not kick up a fuss. I waited until the next day and again asked the officer if he could call the clothes house to send me a bundle of socks.

“You are going to have to wait until later to get some socks,” the officer said. “We are not worrying about socks right now.” 

I could not resist responding: “Why do you have an attitude? I have not said anything out of the way to you. I’m just trying to get me some socks.”

In fact, even before I asked the officer about a missing pair of socks, I had unsuccessfully filed a missing items request, following the institution’s policy on missing clothes. 

When the process does work, it looks something like this: Before the missing items from your bag are returned, either someone from the clothes house or an officer will search your cell. This is to make sure you do not actually have the missing items.

To avoid all of the indignities of the laundry process, many prisoners wash their own clothes in the sink or shower, using soap or shampoo. Since prisoners can’t buy detergent, sometimes they use fragrance oils during the wash to reproduce the effect of nice-smelling detergents and dryer sheets. 

And some people will pay to have their laundry done. Entrepreneurial prisoners I know will charge a small fee, anywhere between $2 and $5 depending on the number of items, to wash your laundry, including sneakers. These laundrymen can earn between $8 and $20 a week when they wash three or four people’s clothes. It is a good and honest hustle for those who don’t receive any outside financial assistance.

It doesn’t happen nearly enough but for a prisoner receiving new clothes on exchange day, it’s like shopping at J.C. Penney or winning the lottery. 

Not having a choice to wash your own clothes or choose the type of detergent you use can make a person feel less human. Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful to have clothes to wear even though the boxers sometimes come with streaks.

But I long for the freedom to go to a laundromat and wash my clothes on any day I want.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Johnny Brown is a writer incarcerated in North Carolina.