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Sure, there are the obvious things. You lose your family, your friends. You can"t go outside when you want. There are no kids or dogs. Smiles are scarce.
But these are the things you expect.
Then there are the things you don"t — or at least I didn"t.
MORE: My dog didn"t forget me when I went to prison
In New York prisons, we got five rolls of single-ply per month. Which I"m sure is adequate if you"re a dude. If you"re a woman, it"s only enough to remind you that you feel like an eff-up.
If you had money and the timing worked out right, you could potentially buy more on commissary. If not, you used notebook paper, magazines, newspapers. You learned not to wipe every time. You sacrificed a towel or two — still knowing that you"d have to get them clean enough to use again at some point. Because towels don"t just grow on trees, either.
You learned to lock up your toilet paper in your locker and never bring the whole thing to the bathroom — lest you get toilet paper-jacked en route. (It is prison, after all — some of your friends may have a history of jacking people.)
You can"t just nicely ask for more — they say they"re not supposed to give it to you. So you beg, you plead. Once, I heard a woman offer sexual favors. For toilet paper.
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That was never an issue in county jail — at least not in the county I was in. There, the toilet paper was plentiful. But the privacy was not.
The old-school cellblocks featured three to five cells with bars. Along one wall, a row of horizontal windows looked into the cells. All day, every day, inmates and guards traipsed back and forth down the hallway, men peering in at the women inside. Changing a pad, getting dressed, peeing.
The twinge of embarrassment never really went away, but it wore down quicker than I expected. Dignity, it turns out, can be a fairly malleable idea.
But then I went to prison, and it was a different ball game. There was blissful privacy in the dorm-style bathroom stalls. Sure, if the guard on the unit was being creepy, he could stick his head over the stall door or repeatedly walk through the shower areas. He could walk by while you were changing, request that you stand naked in your cell during count. But then, at least, it was only the guards — there weren"t any male inmates.
Of course, there were still the strip searches to contend with. Some women asked their loved ones not to visit just to avoid them.
There"s the squatting and coughing and all that, but pulling out a tampon for an inquiring guard during a strip search is a special kind of humiliating. The guard stares stoically, pretending this isn"t at all gross or weird.
Not everyone behind bars is lucky enough to have tampons. For one, not all prisons or jails offer them. And in New York prisons, a specified allotment of maxi pads came free every month, but tampons had to be purchased through commissary.
Some people made their own with repurposed pads. It"s possible, but probably not sanitary. You have to rip out the padding in the middle and mold it into shape, then wrap the sticky part around to hold it all in place, and rip off a little strip to make the string.
Sometimes — depending on how much sticky is on the pad — there"s even the possibility of making two tampons out of one pad.
LISTEN: Ever been toilet paper-jacked? No? Then you"ve never been in prison.
I know, I know — just don"t go to prison, and you won"t put yourself in this situation. We all heard it a million times, from the officers. From our families. From ourselves.
For all the scarcities in prison, some things are quite plentiful. There"s regret. There are broken people. And there"s shame. But you can"t buy forgiveness on commissary.
If you"re lucky, you"ll jury-rig a solution on your own, stealing moments of hope in dark places — Thanksgiving surprises, outbursts of song, moments of normalcy that, fleetingly, feel as though they could be anywhere. You take those moments, and you stack them together, building up a new person one piece at time. If you"re lucky, you cobble together someone with a little more introspection, a little less shame, a little more hope.
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The tools to do that are all there, but they"re not easy to find in a concrete cell.