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Dispatches from the Inside: Tainted soap recalled from California prisons without explanation

Credit California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

Richard Gilliam is incarcerated at the California Men's Colony (CMC).

September 10, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities this isn't. It's more like A Tale of Two Prisons. In late July, CMC officials suddenly, and without explanation, confiscated the entire supply of prison-issue bar soap from the West facility. Those of us that depend on this resource to shower and wash our hands with were left without a means to do so. Some inmates, like myself, were eventually issued one bar about two weeks later; I used this meager allotment parsimoniously, not knowing when it might be replenished. Even after repeated inquiries, prison officials couldn't (or wouldn't) tell us why the soap was confiscated or when it might be replaced. It was another two weeks before we received another issue of soap. This time it came in the form of boxes of a hundred, so it looks like the drought may be over.

Some days later I perused the latest issue of the San Quentin News when I ran across a story on the soap recall. It seems all bar soap produced by the California Prison Industry Authority was recalled because a batch of it was found to contain trace amounts of an unnamed cancer-causing substance. The story went on to detail how San Quentin officials dealt with the problem, and informed the reader when the shipments of replacement bars would resume. Only bad news, in the form of write-ups and program restrictions arrive in a timely manner, while things such as the mail and the San Quentin News must be delivered by the Pony Express, judging by the amount of time it takes for them to arrive.

One of the differences I found telling in the article was staff's response (in each case) to the soap recall. Here at CMC, staff gave us no information as to why and did nothing in the way of getting those that needed it a supply of replacement soap. On the other hand, at San Quentin, the article states, "By 7:45 a.m., the officers were breaking bars of Irish Spring, Ivory, and Jergens in Half," (ensuring those that needed soap got it) one San Quentin inmate stated. While here at CMC, prison officials just clean their hands and bodies. It seems that prison officials at San Quentin took seriously the real possibility of the spread of E Coli, Norovirus, Influenza and many other viral infections which flourish due to unsanitary conditions. Here, in response to a medical grievance filed out of exasperation, one reviewer responded that the author should send a request form to his housing officer, and that if he didn't like the response he should forward the request to that employee's supervisor, before filing his grievance! This, after many of us pleaded with, not only out housing staff, but with prison supervisors on a daily basis. Gee, is it any wonder why many men and women get out of prison angry, frustrated and distrustful of those in authority?