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Howard League blog · 26 Sep 2019

Toilets in prisons

Most prisoners sleep in a toilet. Around 20,000 men sleep in a shared toilet.

The toilet is a cell often small enough to be able to reach both walls with outstretched arms. The toilet has no ventilation except a small grill in a thick window.

The men spend most of the day locked in the toilet. When their cell mate defecates or urinates, they do so in the bowl next to the bunk, often unscreened. The smell is pungent.

The independent monitoring board (IMB) of Coldingley prison published its annual report today, drawing attention to the sanitary arrangements in the 1960s-built jail that has cells without toilets so that at night men ring a bell and are on an automatic waiting system.

The problem is that men use the system to get out of their cells at night to have a chat or to bully other inmates. The answer to this problem is not, as the IMB suggests, to put a toilet inside the cells.

Take a step back. Most of us can manage to go through the night without having to urinate, that is if we are in our bedrooms for the normal seven to nine hours.

The answer is not the in-cell toilet, the answer is to have a full and busy life in prisons

Prisons are different. Men are locked up often between 5pm and 7pm and not unlocked until 8am the following morning. Expecting anyone’s bladder to go 15 hours is optimistic. So the men use a bucket. Obviously that is just disgusting.

The answer is not the in-cell toilet, the answer is to have a full and busy life in prisons.

A previous inspector of prisons, Stephen Tumim, made a big fuss about ‘slopping out’ that was pervasive in prisons. It was a revolting practice. Men used buckets at night and paraded down the corridors in the morning to tip the contents into sluices. Prisons stank. Slops often slopped over.

Of course, something had to be done. Toilets were put into cells. So now men sleep in the toilets, which, because of the lack of cleaning materials and constant throughput of prisoners, are often engrained with other people’s excrement.

This was the wrong answer to the problem, which just created more problems.

Men should be out of their cells, doing useful stuff. If the state takes away freedom as a punishment, it should not include making men endure filth, squalor and degradation.

If men had a busy working day, with outdoor exercise (even a walk would do) and healthy food, they would be tired and sleep at night, just like the rest of us. That would make for a safer prison experience, prepare men properly for release and mean they don’t want to wander about in the night because they are not tired out.

Sort the prisons, not the toilets.


  • SecurTel says:

    This is terrible. Thank you for sharing about life inside prison.

  • Paul says:

    I wonder when you will advocate for not sending men to jail for minors offense, supporting them, creating men’s center with hollistic approach (poverty, domestic and sexual victimization, mental health, ACE, etc.

    You know, what you do for women with the APPG.

  • Claire Durtnall says:

    These practices degrade prisoners and are a terrible indictment of our society. As a civilised society this practice should be abolished and we should ensure that meaningful work is given to prisoners to develop skills which will help them to adjust when they have completed their sentence and leave prison.

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