Rules about “contraband” highlight the arbitrary injustice of life in an American prison

Theater of the absurd.
Theater of the absurd.
Image: AP Photo/Dave Martin, File
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Chelsea Manning’s disciplinary dust-up in August highlighted something most inmates know but few civilians understand: behind bars “contraband” doesn’t have to be dangerous—it only has to be forbidden. In Manning’s case, her contraband included expired toothpaste and Vanity Fair’s Caitlyn Jenner cover, among other items.

Consequently, contraband disciplinary reports often are less practical and more preposterous. I wrote the following while incarcerated. I had just narrowly avoided a disciplinary report (we called them “tickets”) for the possession of illegal clothing items. My sin? The possession of connected Goody hair elastic bands fashioned into a makeshift headband to keep the hair out of my eyes. Like Manning, I would have been found guilty of a disciplinary violation had the correction officer filed a report, and potentially punished.

One more way prison officials can control the behavior of their inmates, contraband regulations offer a taste of the arbitrary and often absurd experience that is life in a typical American prison. 

“What can you do with that?” my mother asks me every time I tell her I don’t have something, because it’s contraband.  She’s thinking of how other characters snuck in machine gun parts to Johnny Dangerously in his eponymous movie. She doesn’t understand that contraband’s prohibition reaches down into the mundane, to the things inmates actually need.

We can’t have tape, stickers or labels—anything adhesive really—because they can be used in two ways. First, they can make opaque materials that are clear. Ironically, a prison really doesn’t want anyone from the outside peering in, yet almost everything within the facility has to be transparent. Our TVs, radios, hot pots, alarm clocks, and mugs must be see-through so no one can hide anything in them. Owning a sticker is not so immoral that it will block introspection—but it can obstruct guards’ vision, particularly through windows into cells, which is the only “introspection” that matters in here.

Second, because everyone in prison has already landed in hot water, they like to pass on the favor, boiling and immersing tape and labels so the glue on the back can be scraped off. The fixative collects like a gel that they then can use to hang photos and generally affix two items together, making them taboo together. So inmates can’t conceal and they can’t congeal—but they also can’t heal because bandages, too, are members of this class of contraband.

We can’t possess anything that we have altered. Drawings on the cover of a notebook turn it into forbidden fruit. In correctional language, an inmate alters a magazine if she rips out a page. Looping together Goody elastic bands to make a bootleg headband, like I did? The prisoner has “annexed” them to each other and thus created illegal clothing. Essentially, inmates can’t create, can’t innovate because whenever they do they machinate, circumventing the set of rules used to govern our bodies and our lives.

We can’t use anything in an unintended way. Yarn’s intended use is for crocheting only, at least in prison, meanwhile stringing up a clothesline is unintended and unlawful. A peanut butter jar containing a pickle (even purchased from the prison commissary) is contraband because a peanut butter jar’s destiny is to house peanut butter only—no pickles allowed. Empty Fluff containers holding many an inmates’ pens and pencils are transformed from white and sweet to illicit. (Since the commissary doesn’t sell verboten pencil holders and rubber bands, I wonder how they expect inmates to keep their writing instruments neat and inspection-ready?)

We also aren’t supposed to have anything that can’t be purchased from the prison commissary. If the state doesn’t issue it and you can’t buy it, you likely scooped it from of the prison’s black market. The biggest suppliers of the black market are guards who have been caught by the inmate in misconduct or infatuation. Black market products include scented lotions, bronzer, lipstick, cigarettes, alcohol and, very often, the latest Victoria’s Secret underwear—pretty pink panties like thongs and lacy push-up bras. You see, we can’t have anything ornate to ensure we won’t manipulate (and offer dates.)

We can’t have items that we ourselves haven’t purchased from commissary. Technically, Michelle’s shampoo in my possession is contraband. When one person gifts an item to another woman, staff can accuse the two of them of bartering, a Class B Disciplinary offense. Junk food and toiletries are a prison’s legal tender and women—particularly those confined—connive and contrive to collect a little bit of currency. They offer sex, stolen items, promises of assistance when an inmate goes home, anything to get their hands on some oatmeal cookies or benzoyl peroxide. Rather than decipher what’s truly freely given and what’s wrangled, staff simply order inmates not to give anything to anyone. This makes it difficult to help a new prisoner who has nothing. We can’t care, we can’t share, all so that the warden never needs to say: “Buyer Beware.”

For obvious reasons, the most crucial contraband is weaponry and drugs. Drugs they don’t want you to buy or snort to get high, mostly so you can’t try to die. Weapons wielded by inmates include mop sticks (unintended purpose!) and metal handles ripped off garbage cans (altered!) in place of guns and knives. In this, my pansy prison, women rarely fashion shanks. But when they do they use washers from the shower head or break a corner off of a metal lid to a kitchen pan; essentially they create and innovate to mutilate and assassinate. I wish instead they’d advocate for safer conditions.

Contraband rules keep inmates from owning anything because we can’t accept reality. To survive, we’ll screw with anything just to make it something else.