Every time Judy Wilbanks wore the bra, she broke out into a rash.

About three years ago, Wilbanks, an inmate at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, developed an allergy to the elastic in the bands of the plain white sports bras the state issues to prisoners, she said. Since, Wilbanks has tried and failed to obtain a bra from the state that she can wear without getting a rash, she now alleges.

“The rash was so bad that I’d have claw marks from scratching, and often open wounds,” Wilbanks wrote in a formal complaint to the state Department of Corrections filed in June, which she provided to Mississippi Today.

According to the inmate handbook, the state issues women three bras in addition to other clothing. Not wearing a bra constitutes a rule violation, Wilbanks said. Wilbanks is sensitive to some other prison-issued clothing, like socks and underwear, but she has always been able to find a substitute or modify the clothing item in question to avoid breaking out, which she cannot do with the bras, she said.

Wilbanks, 67, has attempted to raise the issue with multiple prison employees over the last three years, according to an earlier complaint she filed in March through the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ Administrative Remedy Program.

ARPs, as they are known, start the grievance resolution process inmates must go through before they can file a lawsuit if the grievance remains unresolved.

Though Wilbanks was given Benadryl and a rash cream, neither solved her problem. The Benadryl made her too sleepy to function normally, she wrote. And while the cream cleared up her rash, she would break out again once she put the garment back on. Wilbanks tried ordering bras available from the prison commissary, but they were the same kind as the ones issued by MDOC, she said.

At one point, she wrote a letter to Superintendent Ron King, who heads Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, asking if her family could send her different bras in the mail, but the request was later denied by a warden.

MDOC spokesperson Grace Fisher said that as a matter of practice, the department does not discuss inmate grievances or any matters related to them.

In the meantime, Wilbanks has resorted to wearing a so-called free-world bra another prisoner gave her. Wilbanks has worn this same article of clothing every day for the last two years, washing it by hand every few days. But now it is beginning to fall apart, she said.

Wilbanks said that as of late July, an MDOC employee at the prison responsible for helping inmates obtain wheelchairs, prosthetics and other medical equipment said she needed a note from a doctor instructing MDOC to order Wilbanks a different bra. But doing so would require Wilbanks to make a sick call, which would cost her a $6 co-pay she can’t afford, as she rarely has family members help her financially, she said.

In Wilbanks’s telling, raising the the bra issue may have caused her more problems. Wilbanks has dealt with a number of health issues in prison and was until recently housed in the extended care unit, an air-conditioned unit for veterans and older inmates.

Recently, she was moved from extended care to what is known as quick bed, a larger, hotter and more crowded unit with younger prisoners, after she had a disagreement with another inmate, Wilbanks said. In quick bed this summer, she’s already passed out once from the heat.

Her repeated petitions to return to extended care have been ignored, she said, which she suspects is because of her attempts to get relief over the bra allergy. MDOC also declined to respond to Wilbanks’s retaliation allegations.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.