20 February, 2010

On the Scarcity of Toilet Paper

[This post, as well as four others from The Pariah's Syntax, was selected by the editors of Meridian, a semi-annual literary journal from the University of Virginia, for publication in their twenty-seventh issue, in May 2011. The other posts to appear in that issue were "Halloween in the Hoosegow," "Only A Fleeting Thing," "In Memory of Monuments," and "Joe." But just because you can read them here doesn't mean that you shouldn't order a copy from Meridian's website, thereby supporting the kind of publication daring enough to print such writings as these.]
Sorry to obliterate those notions of a giant license-plate pressing operation, but about the only thing resembling a vocational opportunity here at Crossroads Correctional Center is the toilet paper factory. I can't be sure Missouri plates are still made by its prison inmates at all; though, I know the state does a thriving trade in sub-sweatshop-quality clothing. In a nifty circle of exploitative reciprocity many suspect is technically illegal, inmates are paid by a state-run (sort of) corporation to manufacture guard uniforms and clothes for inmates to purchase (irregular T-shirts, shorts, thin jackets, and so forth). But that's a topic for another time.

Right now, I am interested in this matter of toilet paper, to wit: my problem with the single-roll rule. Everyone here is issued one roll a week. In the very best circumstances, a person might get by fine with a roll of two-ply every seven days. What, however, is to happen if you catch a nasty cold that has you emptying your headspace of mucus every couple of minutes? Worse yet, what if you contract a foodborne pathogen or parasite the symptoms of which are best left undescribed, lest my gentle reader is currently indulging in a chocolate pudding cup or munching a microwave burrito? For instances of increased necessity such as these, a roll a week will hardly be sufficient.

Consequently, a black market in purloined and smuggled rolls has flourished. Workers from the abovementioned factory stuff whole rolls down the fronts of their pants and pray they're not detected in the end-of-day pat-downs. Inmates with janitorial jobs pull the cardboard tubes from the rolls' centers. They sneak the scrunched-up rolls back to their housing units in insulated plastic coffee mugs for customers who have prepaid. Adjusted to street value, based on the average monthly income of a Missouri prisoner without monetary assistance from the outside, this would be like your paying fifty-eight dollars for a roll of Scott Tissue in a back-alley deal. The TP racketeer can do pretty well for himself, particularly in weeks when the institution serves Salisbury steak. It isn't colloquially known as the "poo patty" for nothing.

Because half-rolls and irregularly-sized ones are regularly thrown out by the factory in large numbers, all this makes even less sense. Sure, inmates can buy the same state-issued tissue from the prison canteen, but only a few of us are actually able to afford to do so. Inmates using up their allotment before week's end are often refused any more, or are given just a small length to work with. The luckiest ones may score a whole new roll from a sympathetic guard. In some housing units, guards regularly give out entire rolls, but only after subjecting the requester's cell to a needlessly thorough search. Wouldn't want anybody getting away with a surplus.

"Nobody thinks about running out of toilet paper," a neighbor of mine once observed. And he has a point. "They buy them big packages of thirty rolls and keep 'em in their closets and grab 'em out whenever they need 'em. What would they think about having to ration out their stuff like this — have to go out, all humble, and be all: 'Yo, can a playa get some shit paper?' No sir, they wouldn't like that one bit."

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