Monday, 26 January 2015

Prisons: Washing the Dirty Laundry

Sorry to disappoint those readers who were hoping for an internal exposé of the prison system in this post, but I thought it was time I wrote about how the laundry actually gets done inside our jails. It’s a subject I’ve rarely seen mentioned, even by other cons in their memoirs or blogs. However, for those seeking some real scandals in our jails, read on to the end. You may learn a few home truths that will turn your stomach.

Plenty of dirty laundry in prisons
The first thing to point out is that when you herd hundreds of people together in confinement, they will generate a great deal of dirty washing: clothes, towels and bedding. Trying to keep prisoners – and their cells – clean and hygienic isn’t just about good order, it can also help to cut down on the spread of infections and diseases – with which some prisons can be rife.

Broadly speaking, prison washing is divided into two specific types: ‘kit’ and ‘private clothing’. As the names suggest, the former is anything that has been issued by the prison, while the latter consists of clothes, bedding or other washable items that are the personal property of individual prisoners.

Prison-issue bedding
Issued bedding includes two green poly-cotton bed sheets, one pillow-case, one bright orange blanket (two if you are over 60 or disabled) and one ‘fire blanket’ (a heavy green canvas sheet). I’ve never really worked out what the fire blanket is supposed to be used for. Most cons use it as a top cover for the bed, but I imagine that in the event of a fire in your cell it could be used to smother the flames. I’ve never seen it used for such a purpose, however.

Prison clothing these days various from nick to nick. Most stores are supposed to have a stock of blue jeans, grey jogging bottoms and matching sweatshirts (occasionally in maroon), blue or maroon t-shirts, grey socks and light blue boxer shorts. Some also issue traditional blue and white striped shirts for visits (think Fletcher in Porridge). I have occasionally seen short denim jackets, but these 1970s throwbacks are now pretty rare. 

Prison shirt in Porridge
In addition to the above, prisons also supply two white or green towels (light blue ones tend to be issued for use in the gym showers). They are also supposed to provide pyjamas, although I’ve never, ever seen any on offer in any stores in the prisons I was in.

On top of the personal kit issued, prisons also have a range of clothes for work: kitchen whites for prisoners working in catering or the serving of food, overalls for those working in maintenance, ‘greens’ for prisoners who are cleaners or wing painters, plus innumerable coloured t-shirts and polo shirts for those cons who do special jobs. These include Insiders (peer mentors), Listeners, Toe by Toe mentors (adult literacy), wing reps, violence reduction reps (anti-bullying), diversity and equality reps… and so on. All of these garments need to be washed.

One a week – often on a Friday after lunch – most nicks hold a session called “kit change”. This is the opportunity to bring a set amount of prison-issued clothing, bedding and towels to be handed in for washing. As each con hands over his contribution, together with a small paper slip detailing what he is handing in, this slip is signed off – either by a wing orderly or by a screw. He can then report to the wing stores to collect fresh kit to replace the items sent to the laundry.

Prison laundry slip
There is always a gamble with handing over kit for washing: you can never predict in what condition the replacements will be. I’ve handed in perfectly good condition bed sheets and had rags full of enormous holes given to me in return. The important thing to remember is you never get back the same kit as you hand in. This means that if you hand in boxer shorts, for example, you will get back pairs that have previously been worn by dozens – perhaps hundreds of other blokes. Ditto with socks, sometimes complete with fungal infections, broken off toenails or stains from the last wearer’s open sores.

Now we come the real exposé of this blog post. I spent some months working as a slave in a prison laundry at a large inner city Cat-B nick, so I’ve seen what really goes on for myself. In fact, I am the proud possessor of a full set of SATRA professional laundry qualifications. In the unlikely event that I should ever feel the urge to do so, I am now qualified to operate most industrial laundry processes. 

Some prisons don’t have their own laundries these days, so they ship their dirty washing out to neighbouring establishments. I’ve done the washing for at least five different nicks, including one immigration detention centre.

Most prison laundries are running on a wing and a prayer. Massive industrial washing machines and driers are often old or reconditioned. Nothing new has been bought for years. We experienced frequent breakdowns and malfunctions. Sometimes there was no washing liquid fed into the machines, at other times the steam feed failed and the laundry in the washers went through the cycles cold. 

Prison washing machines: can malfunction
While this might not be a major problem at home, in an industrial setting, it can prove to be potentially disastrous. Many prison garments come into the laundries heavily soiled. Some are soaked in human urine, faeces, semen or mucus; other items are contaminated by fresh blood, which can carry and transmit a range of infectious diseases. A significant number of adult prisoners are actually incontinent, either as a result of illness, age or mental health problems. Dealing with bedding that has been wet in the night is a daily chore in most prison laundries. 

In our prison system we also have to deal with a fair amount of blood, sometimes lots of it. Plenty of prisoners cope with their sentences through regular self-harming, often involving cutting their own flesh. At other times there might have been a serious fight between cons or a suspected grass might have been cut with razor blades. Prison towels and sheets are then used to mop up the blood.

Bio-hazard laundry bags
Although officially, bio-hazards were supposed to be dealt with in a sealed, dissolvable bag – and an outer sack marked with a red stripe to indicate danger – in reality, there was often no means of separating such garments from the rest. Generally speaking, everything tended to be piled in together. This meant that health and safety measures were defective from the start. 

When washing machines fail to reach the correct temperatures this also means that potential infections – such as scabies, where tiny mites burrow into human skin – may not have been eliminated. Periodically, prisons do get outbreaks of such highly contagious infections. It’s all very scary, really.

However, what was even more worrying is that this prison laundry didn’t just take washing in from other prisons, it also had a number of commercial contracts with local restaurants, cafés and wedding venues. This means that although batches of their towels, tablecloths and napkins were processed separately from prison-issue kit, the same contaminated laundry barrows and machines were used indiscriminately. There was never time for a ‘service wash’ to clean the machines in between loads of prison and external washing.

Laundry barrows: sometimes leaking urine
I’ve seen prison laundry barrows leaking human urine being used for external contract washes on many occasions. I often wondered if diners at these exclusive eateries would be so enthusiastic about sitting at tables set with cloths, or wiping their mouths with napkins, that have been washed and dried in machines that had been used immediately beforehand for prison garments covered in human faeces, possibly contaminated blood, semen or infectious mucus – not to mention scabies mites. 

As the restaurants’ tablecloths and napkins were passed through the giant calendar (a rotary ironing machine), cons on duty had the less than pleasant task of picking off human hairs – pubic and otherwise – that had attached themselves to the items in the massive industrial tumble driers. No-one wore gloves and some cons working on these machines had themselves nasty skin infections or diarrhoea. 

Bon appétit: prison fresh linen
As soon as each item had been ironed smooth, it was packed into a crate ready for delivery back to the café or restaurant.  And to think that the owners of these catering businesses were paying good money for this service… Next time you dine out, it might pay to ask whether the restaurant or café of your choice gets its table and kitchen linen laundered at the local prison laundry.

Clothing for prisoners was treated even less carefully. Some of the garments that came out of the laundry were still heavily stained with human waste or were so tattered that they were only fit for use as cleaning rags. Nevertheless, within a few days this clothing would be on the bodies of prisoners because of the ‘take it or leave it’ policy in the stores. Not happy with the old boxer shorts you’ve been given because of the disgusting stains from human waste? Well then you can ‘go commando’ (not wear any underpants) until the next kit change. Your choice!

As things stand, pretty much every male prisoner now experiences this sort of humiliation, especially during the first two weeks or so of their sentences. The new Entry level of the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme introduced from 1 September 2013 via PSI 20/2013 has forced all male prisoners into prison kit as a purely punitive measure (all women cons are exempt and can wear their own clothes at all times). 

Work gear
Many prisons then allow cons to have their own clothes back again as soon as they get onto Standard level. However, a fair few Cat-B locals don’t have the facilities to wash much private clothing on the wings, so in at least three of these nicks a prisoner will have to wait a further three months to attain Enhanced level before being able to wear their own clothes. In the meantime, they will have to make do with the often filthy and unhygienic kit handed out by the stores.

Quite a few prisoners who do manage to get issued with a decent set of prison gear will never exchange it. They will either simply wear what they have until it stinks or else try to hand-wash items in the cell sinks. In fact, the canteen sheets in most nicks actually sell cheap washing powder for this purpose. Then they try to dry their clothing on the hot water pipes or from the bars in the cell windows. That’s why prison landings often smell damp and musty.

Of course for those cons who have money there is often a very different level of service available: so-called “private washes”. This is where the wing laundry orderly collects your clothes from your cell at your convenience, washes them separately in a clean machine on the wing, using your own washing powder and softner and then returns them neatly folded – or if you pay for the deluxe service, even ironed. The usual tariff was a couple of tins of canteen tuna or some bars of chocolate. Unsurprisingly, to be wing laundry orderly was a very desirable, profitable and hotly contested job in every prison I’ve been in.

Fees for a private wash...
Moreover, stores orderlies were not above corruption and, should a fresh consignment of brand new prison clothing arrive, for a small consideration they would ensure that you received new boxers, socks and t-shirts in the appropriate sizes. So come kit change day, there would be no stained, grubby, ill-fitting clothing for the well-heeled elite cons of the wing.

As with so many of the punitive policies introduced by Chris Grayling, those who are really suffering are usually the prisoners at the bottom of the pecking order: the ones who really are penniless and have nothing with which to trade. But then, isn’t that the whole philosophy of the free market?


  1. This post just sums up so well the inhumane conditions that exist in our UK prisons. Grayling and his two fellow monkeys should be totally ashamed of the conditions they force their fellow human beings to endure. Unfortunately they don't appear to consider anyone who ends up in prison, even those on remand who have not been convicted of any crime and who often end up with the charges against them being dropped. The sheer fact you are in prison seems to enable the system to treat you as some sub human entity. Unfortunately the only way things are likely to change is if Grayling et al are forced to don prison clothing and spend at least 7 days undergoing 23 hour lockdowns and eating the awful slop that passes for prison food. If not longer. Make the judiciary do the same as well. I bet we'd a) see conditions change overnight and b) they would all be screaming to be let out within 24 hours.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I'm not sure I can really add much to what you've written above.

      Most people who have contempt for prisoners lack any real sense of empathy or imagination. I'm sure all those ex-MPs and former ministers never thought for one moment that they'd end up in the slammer themselves (even if it was for a matter of weeks, rather than years). As I've mentioned on this blog more than once, anyone who drives a vehicle is potentially never more than a momentary loss of concentration and a tragic accident away from a prison sentence...

    2. Let's face it, anyone on the planet in the right set of circumstances is more than capable of a crime like murder so for anyone to pretend they are not is hypocritical beyond belief. None of us know what the day will bring or what will happen to us and we could so easily end up in a situation where something horrible happens and we are blamed for it. My useless trial representation used to very smugly sit there telling me that they would never be found guilty of a crime (unlike me obviously) but I had the last laugh when they were both later done for a tax scam.

    3. Sure. I've written a few times on this blog about the plight of people who have been wrongly convicted and served time inside - often 17 years or more, but I agree that disaster can suddenly overtake pretty much anyone, usually when they least expect it. Our legal system is often more like a courtroom drama on TV - highly paid actors who do their best to convince the audience (the jury and the media) of the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Real justice, it usually isn't!

  2. Bumped once again on Channel 4 news. This time for the Greek election and a report on Auschwitz. At least these stories were of more import than previous bumpings for fluffy stories

    1. Latest news... C4 will run the prisons story sometime in the near future, maybe later this week - although I'm not holding my breath!

  3. If you hand your own clothing in for washing, will it be mixed in with everyone else's, and does it have a tendency to go missing?

    And slightly off-topic, if you are allowed to wear your own clothes, do you still have to change into a prison uniform when in the visiting hall? I have just been reading a novel with a scene in a visiting hall, and a remand prisoner is wearing his own clothes. I wondered if that was correct.

    1. Thanks for your questions. All prisoners should be issued with a white net laundry bag. This has a cotton tag on which you write your wing and cell number. Your personal washing goes into this and usually once a week you put this bag full of washing in the designated area (in a barrow or by the wing gate) and the orderlies will collect it. A set number of these bags will be washed together in each machine at the same time and then dried in the large tumbledriers.

      Bags should be returned later the same day unopened, but with the contents washed and dried (often very badly), so in theory items shouldn't get lost. At the same time they are often either still damp or else smell of other blokes' cheesy socks, not to mention creasing.

      There is always some risk of pilfering - it is a prison, after all - and any clothing that is delicate will probably get trashed. That's why so many cons opt to pay under the counter for "private wash" services. It does make an enormous difference when you get back your own laundry smelling fresh and neatly folded!

      Every prison seems to have its own system for what cons wear for visits. I've been at a Cat-B where prisoners had to wear brightly coloured tabards over their ordinary clothing to distinguish them from visitors. Another prison insisted that all cons wore only prison jeans and blue and white striped shirts in the visiting hall. When I visit my friend in another Cat-B (a private jail), everyone seems to wear whatever they like, with no requirement other than they sit in the special red seat around the little coffee tables.

      In the case you quote above, all unconvicted remands have a legal right to wear their own clothing as long as these are decent and in reasonable repair, unless they are on the E-list (potential or past escapees). I suppose that remands might still have to don a coloured tabard, but would still have their own gear on underneath. There doesn't seem to be any consistency about this between prisons.

    2. Just to clarify..pilfering goes on everywhere. I have heard that some MPs have fiddled there expenses. Just a rumour obviously.

    3. Indeed! And I've known a couple of screws and even a deputy governor who have had sticky fingers (allegedly) and been sacked for it...

  4. Thank you for this very informative post.

    It really is rather disgusting, so unhygienic. No matter what someone has done, they shouldn't have to wear clothes that have been stained by excrement. I used to do an old man's washing, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't wash the smell of urine from his clothing, so goodness only knows how these prisoners at the bottom of the pile cope. It must be very humiliating!

    Thanks again.

    Sasson Hann

    1. Thanks for your comments. Sadly, this is often the low standard in which we warehouse human beings at taxpayers' expense. For Mr Grayling and his ilk, this ritual humiliation of being stripped of your identity and forced to wear dirty or stained prison clothing is all part of his warped idea of 'real' punishment. In the sad, sadistic world in which the Secretary of State for 'Justice' lives, this is how he believes he can win votes from the punishment freaks who blight our society.

  5. A link from today's Independent about women being sent to prison and the need for alternatives to custody: It's nothing new as the Corston Report published nearly 8 years ago is clear. It's just astounding that although the government of the day accepted all the recommendations they actually put in place very few of them (doing away with routine strip searching was about the only one that actually came into practice). It just goes to show that absolutely no politician is actually prepared to act on the situation and simply offers up empty rhetoric on the subject.

    1. Thanks for your comments and the link. As with HM Inspectorate reports, there are lots of recommendations but often very little concrete action. Because of the commonly-accepted narrative concerning crime and prisoners - fuelled by politicians and punishment-junkies - the whole issue of prisons appears to have become highly toxic. It seems to be the portfolio no-one really wants to take on... a kind of political hospital-pass (to use a phrase from rugby!)

  6. Alex what we're u I'm for. I'm curious vas

    1. Exposing corruption and criminality in high places!

    2. Why is the "Inside Time" website not working, Alex?

    3. Not sure. I've just checked it and it seems to be OK - just a different format to usual. Maybe they are doing some web maintenance?

    4. They are redeveloping the whole site and are having more than a few problems with it apparently

  7. It's amazing how the most mundane routine can be broken down into compenent parts and reconstructed with new forms of degradation and punishment attached to each step of the process. The degradation of the prisoner at every turn comes across as authoriatrianism in its purest, highest form. As an interesting aside, there seems to be an expanding market for 'prison-porn' in the form of National Geographic-style 'documentaries' on domestic free-to-air tv here in Australia, most of it imported wholesale from the US and UK. The over-riding message of these morality-plays is always 'do the crime, this is what awaits', with confinement depicted as the beginning and end of the sentence. These docos constantly fail to capture the social context in which crime occurs - generally as the byproduct of social alienation from a system of wealth accumulation which has us create wealth and power, then takes it from us, and locks the vast majority of us out of usefully consuming and deploying it, and further rubs our noses in it by using the media to remind us of our failure relative to those who've 'made it'. This post is a brilliant illustration of how -no matter what you're in for- a prisoner is a blob whose sole purpose is to be shamed, humiliated and broken down even further. The fact that we 'prisoners' on the outside are also affected by this degradation -including, but not limited to, those you've highlighted here- without even knowing it, shows how successful the prison-industrial complex is at dividing and ruling over us, either without our knowledge, or with our tacit consent. Thanks for the blog - keep it up!

  8. Washing the dirty laundry in perfect manner is not so easy, a systematic way is required. Different laundry need different strategy and this thing you described here very well.