On Monday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress toured migrant detention centers in Texas. Afterward, they described scenes of cruelty and despair, bolstering previously reported allegations of deeply inadequate hygiene and generally hazardous conditions in facilities like these.
In addition to meeting people who said they had to drink from toilets and were being subjected to "psychological warfare," Ocasio-Cortez came across a packet of shampoo she said had been provided to migrants in lockup. She claimed that at least some people were being told to wash all their bits with this:
The photo raised a simple question: Who is making this stuff, and are they aware of what their product is being used for?
A quick image search suggests what we've got here is "Meridian Shampoo." A clear substance in a single-use package, it is sealed in plastic reminiscent of a standard-issue doctor's office lollipop—except this package is decorated with a purple minimalist water droplet shape and little specks reminiscent of moisture. It's one of those many mundane, toiletry-proximal items that was almost certainly not manufactured with anyone's happiness in mind, and is thus made incalculably more grim by the mere presence of any decoration at all.
Anyway, it's no secret where you can buy Meridian shampoo in bulk: the Bob Barker Company, the prison supply outfit that has made at least $13 million contracting with federal prisons since 1995. According to GovTribe, it has also struck at least $100,000 worth of deals to provide goods to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since 2016. Most relevant in this case: According to the Federal Procurement Data System, in 2014, Barker sold over $100,000 worth of "household furniture" to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency managing facilities toured by Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress this week. The company previously sold $3,177.93 worth of "personal toiletry articles" to CBP in 2013, and another purchase of the same kinds of goods was listed as amounting to $0 in 2017.
According to founder and CEO Bob Barker Sr. (who is not the gameshow host, although that rumor abounds), the company prides itself on acting quickly when the government has a sudden influx of people it deems in need of incarceration. Barker's book I'm in Cells, co-written with Tony W. Cartledge, describes just that back in 2002, when the U.S. established the notorious Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. "When I recall those days, though, what I remember most is that first hectic week when we shipped out 4,300 inmate uniforms and related supplies. Nobody else could have done that," he writes.
In 2008, the Bob Barker Company was accused of manufacturing goods in sweatshop conditions. Factory workers in Bangladesh complained that they were beaten, and coerced into working unwanted shifts as long as 18 hours. Company president Bob Barker Jr. said at the time that the companies it works with "share our commitment to the health and safety of those working in this industry," adding, "We do not condone, and have never been involved with, any violation of labor laws."
VICE contacted both the Bob Barker Company and CBP to clarify the current relationship between the two entities, but as of this writing, neither had responded to requests for comment. Still, federal trademark data made clear the Bob Barker Company owns the Meridian brand.
So to recap, migrants in CBP custody are being given packets of shampoo, according to Ocasio-Cortez, and being told to use them as all-in-one shower products. Which brings us to the strangest wrinkle of all: Bob Barker sells a different Meridian soap that is designed to be used as an all-in-one shower product. Incidentally, Bob Barker also markets selections of its products as something called a "Personal Admission Kit," which includes such items as a washcloth, shampoo, deodorant, bar of soap, shaving cream, razor, comb, toothbrush, and toothpaste, all for the price of about $2.50 per person. The shampoo packets were being offered on the company's website for a rate closer to 10 cents a pop.
Meanwhile, the border package passed in Congress this week allocated $905 million to CBP, which theoretically would permit the feds to spend more on making life less hellish in migrant detention. Ocasio-Cortez voted no on that spending bill, arguing that the House shouldn't have passed the Republican-run Senate's version of the bill without first negotiating, explaining, "That's an abdication of power we should refuse to accept. They will keep hurting kids if we do."
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