The jail recycles inmates' underwear to prevent panty envy from escalating to theft and violence, says Undersheriff Rick Mellott. An inmate with inferior panties might snatch another's lacy briefs while her head was turned. A brassiere with snappy elastic would certainly be an alluring bargaining chip in the nether world of inmate politics. "This is the way it's always been done," Mellott says.
The policy has little support at smaller jails in Missouri and Kansas, which usually allow inmates to bring their own underwear. Another large lockup, the Johnson County jail, supplies new undergarments for a fee. But Wyandotte County passes bras and panties among the inmates until the straps and elastic no longer can hold up under the wear and tear of industrial-strength laundering.
Male inmates also wear used drawers, but for women, the unwanted intimacy of sharing underwear with fellow inmates seems cruel -- if not unusual. "I don't like wearing other people's underwear," snaps Angie.
Sometimes, when an inmate gets a particularly comfortable bra or panty, she'll keep it as long as possible, refusing to toss it into the laundry cart. Instead, she'll rinse her inmate apparel in her cell's stainless steel sink in a stream of water arching feebly upward from a fountainlike spout. No one finds that remedy particularly uplifting. "Why would you want to wash your underwear in the same sink where you brush your teeth?" Angie asks.
Others resort to extreme measures.
On a recent afternoon in the jail, four inmates in orange jumpsuits played cards while another wheeled a squeaky bucket sloshing with dingy water across the floor. "We have to wash our underwear in the mop bucket, the same one they use to mop the floors," Debbie says. "How sanitary is that?"
The inmates had a washing machine in the jail at one time, but fights broke out whenever crafty inmates pilfered nicer briefs or more-supportive bras from the washer's tub, says Captain Mayme Pearson at the jail. Those days are gone now, and so is the washer, says Pearson. The inmates can wash their own underwear or toss their bras and panties into the cart and take their chances on what comes back.
"They say, 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do,'" says Pearson, who admits she wouldn't relish wearing another woman's panties. But like any woman at the jail, if she committed a crime, she'd have to do the time.
Not that all these women are convicts. An inmate's stay may stretch into months before her case even goes to trial.
The card-playing inmates pad their argument with a health complaint. "We get yeast infections," says Debbie. Yeast infections can't be contracted from underwear, especially ones that have been vigorously laundered, but no one wants to wear the panties of a woman with a vaginal infection, sexually transmitted disease or careless personal hygiene.
Wyandotte County jail's underwear policy isn't unusual, says Chris Bussen, a spokeswoman for the Jackson County jail, which also recycles its underwear. The biggest reason for the policy is that inmates could smuggle contraband between their elastic bands. Also, at the Jackson County jail, which houses approximately 800 inmates, volume is a factor.
"I can only imagine how difficult it would be to keep 800 pairs of underwear separate and return them to the rightful owner," says Bussen. Yet the Johnson County jail, which houses 330 inmates, has the problem fully figured out, says Major Robert Johnston, bureau commander at the jail. Each inmate has a bag in which clothes can be washed and dried in the bag and then returned. When inmates leave his jail, says Johnston, their underwear goes with them.
Still, says J.B. Hopkins, Wyandotte County jail administrator, the underwear recycling is common nationwide. He admits that because washing is done in a communal setting for up to 350 inmates at his jail, "the likelihood of getting the same pair back is small."
Mellott, the Wyandotte County undersheriff, says he doesn't understand the fuss. "I personally don't buy a new pair of underwear every time I change them," says Mellott. If he were busted, he says, he'd just have to wear whatever jail administrators gave him.
"They could avoid all of this," says Mellott, "by not breaking the law."