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Why did they bring so much soap?
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 12/05/2011

Institutional soap Sometimes, when notice something out of the ordinary, it sets off a chain of thoughts that delve deeply into the issue. For example, I discovered nearly two dozen hand soaps under the counter in the library. I had to ask, “Why did they bring so much soap?”

It happened on a day like any other day. We were about a quarter of the way through a two hour law library session in General Population. While monitoring this particular session, I sat facing the prisoners in the corner of the room which I normally do not place myself. From there I noticed that packed tightly by the kick board on the outward facing library counter was a white rectangular package.

Of course, I had many options. I did not necessarily have to snag the item immediately. I could have stared intently at it and try to gauge (through peripheral vision) the reactions of those who were watching me. I could have pretended not to have seen it and watched for any activity around the item. In an unorthodox move, I could have addressed the entire group prisoners and ask to whom the package belonged.

Ultimately, with all eyes on , I walked over, picked up the item, and secured it in my office. Then, I wrote about what I found in the logbook. It was an envelope filled with 23 small hand soaps. They were carefully stacked in an envelope that was folded tightly around them. The glue on the envelope flap was moistened to seal the package. It measured approximately 8" x 2" x 1".

So, on the face of it, I had found 23 little bars of soap. I did not see who dropped them. No one claimed them. They were, in effect, abandoned property. No one in the room gave anything away. There's not a clue as to who used the library as a drop and past location. And I was certain that the package was not in place under the counter prior to the start of the library session.

At the risk of over-thinking things, I wondered why there was so much soap. In talking to a few colleagues and thinking about myself, there were a few theories to consider.
  1. This is a test of my observation skills - A prisoner or a group of prisoners used what they deemed as disposable contraband of little value to gauge my vigilance. They want to see if I would notice something out of place and if I would immediately address it.
  2. This is a diversion - The soap was an excuse to get me to one side of the room. With my back turned, something more important than 23 small pieces of soap was being exchanged.
  3. This a payoff - In exchange for some goods, service, or fulfillment of losing a bet, someone use what they thought was a perfect spot to pay the debt.
  4. This is a dry run – Whoever put the soap bundle by the kick board of the counter was curious to see if the library was a good place to hide something. If this dry run was successful with low value items such as the soap, the library may be a place where more valuable items could be effectively stored and moved.

In the end, the soaps probably meant very little. Of course, the intended objective may never be known. Still, this may indicate to the prisoners present that the location is unstable as a drop and pass location.

Again, I concede that this could be over-thinking something that is essentially simple. However, it behooves us to keep thinking and planning for the sake of safety. This is what keeps our minds flexible and helps ensure our success in on covering contraband plots and taking unauthorized items out of circulation.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author, Joe Bouchard, has been with the Michigan Department of Corrections since 1993 as a Librarian for the Baraga Correctional Facility. He also teaches criminal justice and corrections classes for Gogebic Community College. He is the editor of The Correctional Trainer, the official journal of the International Association of Corrections Training Personnel and MCA Today, the official journal of the Michigan Corrections Association.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


  1. booch on 12/07/2011:

    The bar of soap is often used by our inmates to wash their clothing instead of sending their clothing out to laundry. Inmates also hollow out a bar of soap and use it to store contraband. One inmate collected bars of soap from other inmates and, using hot water, melted the small two-ounce bars and then forged his own 10-pound bar of soap. The 10-pound bar of soap, which was as hard as a rock, could have been used as a possible weapon. Another method using a bar of soap - Split the soap lengthwise with a warm butterknife, hollow out a cavity, insert the stash, reseal with a powerful adhesive, and using a warm knife smooth the outside edge. Also roughen the appearance of the soap. Thanks for your insight!

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