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Texas Prisoners Face Annual Shortage of Hygiene Items in Prison Commissaries

Texas Prisoners Face Annual Shortage of Hygiene Items in Prison Commissaries

by Matt Clarke

It’s a regular routine for Texas state prisoners – commissaries running out of hygiene supplies and other items as purchasing contracts are renewed.

The contracts for Texas prison commissaries expire at the end of August, when each fiscal year comes to a close. That’s when the Texas Procurement and Support Services Division begins advertising for bidders to fill new commissary contracts. If the previous supplier is willing to fill the new contract the transition may go smoothly, but if they’re dissatisfied with the terms the contract could go unfilled for months. That’s what happened with the contracts for deodorant and toothpaste in 2012, for example, leaving Texas prisoners unable to purchase those items when commissary supplies ran out in early 2013.

“There’s not an easy workaround,” said Jennifer Erschabek, director of the Austin branch of the Texas Inmate Families Association. “It’s just state red tape and then a breakdown in the process.”

According to Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) records, by January 2013 there were 28,000 tubes of toothpaste and 1,800 sticks of deodorant left for around 151,000 state prisoners to buy.

“Offenders are still able to purchase hygiene products from the commissary,” TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said. But he noted that those items are not considered necessities and therefore are not supplied for free by the prison system. Soap, which is considered a necessity, is manufactured at a prison factory and provided to prisoners free of charge. Since then, TDCJ began supplying toothpaste as well.

Former Texas prisoner Jorge Renaud, who wrote a book about life in Texas prisons and now works for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said many prisoners are required to shower between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. “Since inmates are going to be recreating and sweating all day, this makes for some uncomfortable – not to mention smelly – situations,” he said.

Renaud also observed that many Texas prisoners are indigent and can’t always afford toothpaste and deodorant, the vast majority of prisoners not receiving any pay for their labor being a contributing factor. Those who are able to buy such items often purchase several tubes and sticks when they’re available so they can barter with the excess during shortages. “Maybe they work in the kitchen and will bring you peanut butter or they’ll give you 10 stamps,” said Renaud. “It’s an economy.”

Texas prisoners recognize the annual shortages as a kind of right-of-passage. Enterprising prisoners try to guess which items the commissary will run out of and stock up on those products in advance. Their ability to pursue this strategy is limited by the small amount of storage space (as little as 1.75 square feet) that Texas prisoners are allowed for personal items. In past years, commissaries have run out of toothpaste for up to eight months and coffee for four months.

The TDCJ also has an eCommDirect program whereby family members and friends can purchase up to $60 in commissary items each quarter, including basic hygiene items, for eligible prisoners. The eCommDirect system requires a $3.75 fee for each purchase; pricing includes $2.20 for a tube of Colgate toothpaste, $2.15 for a deodorant stick and $.50 for a roll of toilet paper – presumably another necessity.



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