Billion-Dollar Prison Budget, But Where’s the Toilet Paper?

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Toilet paper shortages at Arizona's Perryville prison for women are "violating female dignity," charges a state representative. Photo by GorillaSushi via Flickr

Women confined in the Perryville prison at Goodyear, AZ., say the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) is not giving them enough toilet paper to live clean, hygienic lives.

perryville prison

Perryville State Prison complex. Photo courtesy Arizona Department of Corrections

Prison authorities have officially denied the charge, but a state representative blames cost-cutting by officials and a correctional culture that is largely “designed for men,” who she says have different hygienic needs than women do.

Letters recently sent from two inmates at the Lumley unit in Arizona State Prison Complex – Perryville to the American Friends Service Committee allege the prison has been running out of toilet paper, leaving them to use pads and wash rags.

“I ran out on Saturday 9/30, and although I continually asked for [toilet paper] was told they were out,” one woman wrote. “They did have pads that I used as [toilet paper] until Monday 10/1 when they ran out. I then had to use a wash rag until Wed morn (sic).”

Another inmate wrote “many of the officers are indifferent to the fact that we don’t have any.”

KJZZ has confirmed the identity of the authors of the letters as current inmates in the Perryville prison, but is not publishing their names as they fear retribution.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a prisoner advocacy organization based in Tucson. AFSC communications director Joe Watson said the letters reflect a common theme in the correspondence they have with men and women in Arizona prisons.

“How do we expect folks to rehabilitate themselves, if we can’t even treat them like human beings?” Watson asked.

“If you treat folks like animals, withholding their basic necessities, how do we expect them to come out of prison and feel like they are a part of their community?”

More than 4,000 women are incarcerated at the Perryville prison in Goodyear, a suburb of Phoenix, one of 13 prisons operated by the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Among its well-known inmates is Jodi Arias, who began serving a life sentence there in 2015 for the murder of her ex-boyfriend in 2008.


A copy of a letter from an inmate alleging toilet paper shortages at Perryville. Photo courtesy American Friends Service Committee.

A mother of an inmate wrote to KJZZ in early September making similar claims that “normal everyday hygiene items are in short supply.”

KJZZ is not publishing her identity as she fears potential retaliation against her daughter for speaking out.

“My daughter told me that she had a cold, so I suggested she drink lots of water to help get rid of it,” the woman said. “She said she couldn’t because she would have to go to the bathroom all the time and there wasn’t any toilet paper.”

In a response to questions about the toilet paper shortage, Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder said the allegations were “patently untrue.”

“All inmates … have continuous access to toilet paper, at no cost to them,” Wilder said.

Wilder said all inmates are provided two toilet paper rolls each week, and can get more by exchanging the empty rolls after they are used.

In the same response, Wilder confirmed that the Lumley unit in Perryville had experienced a shortage, which he attributed to inmates abusing the system.

“The unfortunate reality is that some inmates misuse the toilet paper or misrepresent themselves when asking for more,” Wilder said. “And that can disrupt a unit’s ability to maintain a reasonable and reliable supply for all of the inmates.”

“On a recent Friday in September, the Lumley unit had 864 rolls of toilet paper on site for the weekend ahead (Lumley’s inmate population is 652). By Sunday, the unit had exhausted all of its paper,” Wilder said. “The unit was quickly resupplied within two hours. When prison staff conducted inspections of housing unit, they found multiple inmates possessing additional toilet paper.”

Wilder said Perryville Warden Regina Dorsey toured the Lumley unit Oct. 10 and confirmed that the toilet paper supply was “good” and that “rolls are being provided as required.”

However, Rep. Athena Salman, who has championed access to feminine hygiene products for women in prison, said she’s been hearing the complaints of a lack of toilet paper at Perryville for the past month.

Salman says the governor’s office confirmed the toilet paper shortages at Perryville in a phone conversation on Sept. 27, when she spoke with Katie Fischer, director of legislative affairs.

“They were aware of the situation,” Salman said.

An (Official) Policy on Toilet Paper

She said the governor’s office called it an “unintended consequence” of  an updated policy on feminine hygiene products issued by ADC Director Charles Ryan.

In February, Ryan announced  that, starting March 1, “all female inmates, regardless of need, will receive a minimum baseline quantity each month of 36 sanitary napkins, tampons or a combination of both, based on their preference.”

Wilder said the current toilet paper policy also went into effect March 1, and has come at an increased cost to ADC.

“Prior to February 2018, inmate toilet paper costs at ASPC-Perryville were approximately $16,000 per quarter,” Wilder said. “Since March, those costs have risen to approximately $48,000 per quarter.”

Salman said the governor’s office also cited increased expenses as a reason for the shortage, but she takes issue with the cost explanation.

“Let’s be real,” Salman said. “This is one of the most well-funded agencies in the state. The Department of Corrections has a billion-dollar budget. How is it that they can’t afford to meet the basic necessities of their inmates?”

Salman said the governor’s office told her ADC was struggling with knowing how much toilet paper to order due to increased demand.


Map courtesy Wikipedia

“I just think — when you have $1 billion — order more, you know? It shouldn’t be that complicated,” Salman said.

The fiscal year 2019 budget allocation from the state general fund for the Arizona Department of Corrections was $1,094,814,400.

Salman said she believes part of the problem is that the prison system is an institution “designed by men for men.”

“Women have to use toilet paper every time they go to the bathroom,” Salman said. “It’s violating female dignity. Ask any woman what it feels like when she goes into a stall and there’s no toilet paper.”

Salman noted that legislation she sponsored in the 2018 legislative session included an amendment that would have provided unlimited feminine hygiene products and toilet paper.

“The only way to ultimately protect people in prison is to codify these protections to give it the force of law,” she said.

Salman’s bill was blocked by House leadership in favor of allowing ADC to implement an internal policy change.

But Salman believes there is not enough oversight to make sure the policy is being carried out.

“It’s frustrating to see that we have women inside our prisons risking retaliation to let the outside world know that they are going days without toilet paper,” Salman said. “This is immoral and inhumane.”

Salman said all inmates should have their basic needs met immediately, and she will look for ways to codify the hygiene product policy in the future.

“Without the force of law, you’re really just leaving it up to the agency that was violating the rights of the prisoners in the first place,” Salman said.

This is a slightly edited version of a report by Jimmy Jenkins, a reporter for KJZZ Public Radio in Phoenix, and a 2018 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. His original report is available here.  Readers’ comments are welcome.

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