Friday, October 2, 2009

Love Your Bum

I suspect that for as long as there have been prisons, there has been low-grade toilet paper. Some committee probably sat down and decided that even our toilet habits should not be allowed to be overly comfortable. The metric of punishment extends to every corner of prisoners’ lives.

And so for as long as we can remember, our toilet paper was

single-ply, having the properties of tracing paper. Without being too specific, I can only say that it was more useful to smear than to absorb.

It did have its uses, even if unintended ones. The shiny surface was very good for writing upon, and countless hidden messages flowed around the prison - and out of the gate - on this free paper. For the desperate it could also be used as a makeshift cigarette paper. Never underestimate the ingenuity of a man gasping for a smoke.

Staff toilet paper, on the other hand, was a very soft two-ply. Real toilet paper as the world knew it. Now and then some of this would fall into our hands, a roll here or there, and provided a welcome touch of comfort.

So ingrained was this lavatorial apartheid that when soft loo roll appeared in our communal toilets we instinctively stole it, squirreling it back to our cells before the next man did. New, still soft, rolls appeared to replace those stolen. We kept assuming some error in the stores for our unexpected bounty, and kept stealing them.

Only when the Wing Manager put up a notice did we recognise the dawn of a New Age: "Please stop stealing the toilet rolls, they are yours! Soft toilet paper is now being issued to prisoners."


  1. At boarding school we had that paper. We played music on it by wrapping it around a comb. Sounded like a gazoo!

  2. Great Blog, Ben. I'm enjoying the commentary.

  3. I have also done the comb bit with the bog paper. But. this IRA bloke couldn't half do a good Danny Boy on the comb and bog paper and his voice was like an angel...

  4. Hello Ben and all. I came across your blogg last week and now have it bookmarked. I find your insights of the mainly hidden prison world very informative and interesting. As a btw, I have been concerned for a long time by the UK following the USA model of politicians competing to lock up as many as people as they can to keep certain types of voters happy. A much better way would be the Swedish or Dutch model of reformation rather than retribution.

  5. I forget the year - about 1990 I think - when I used a sheet of the above mentioned semi-translucent forest product, held up against my cell window, to chart the course of a naked eye sunspot as it crossed the disc of the sun over several days. Such small triumphs wake a little bird inside you!

  6. In the now closed jail on the crumlin road in Belfast, my brother in law tells me they had mystery parcels. In crowded cells rather than sleep with the smell of another mans you know what in the bucket (no toilets in cells) they wrapped it up and shoved it out the window into the exercise yard for the screws/or who ever the screws could get to come along and clean in the morning.

  7. Not only Crumlin Road, Kate. In addition to the shit-parcels, razor wire outside the wings of London prisons used to be festooned with men's underpants - doing the same job you mentioned in your post. How are things these days, Ben?