Slopping Out

It's definitely not nice to have to pee or shit in a bucket in the night. In 2,000 cells across ten prisons in the British prison system, apparently, there is no in-cell toilet, which means the practice of "slopping out", though officially abolished in 1996, still continues.

The Guardian reported a legal challenge to this situation earlier this week:

That report prompted me to tweet that I had mixed views about the issue. That in turn prompted some tweetmates to ask what I think about slopping out. So here's what I think….

Slopping out is not OK. I don't subscribe to the school of thought that says that anyone who is in prison must forego any expectation of decent treatment. Loss of liberty is a punishment in itself; random additional discomfort or unpleasantness depending on where you're incarcerated has nothing to do with justice. Being able to provide decent toilet facilities in prisons ought to be a "good society" issue. If we want to create and live in a good society, prison sanitation is an aspect of that. We should certainly work towards all prisoners having access to in-cell toilets, and the sooner the better.

What I'm not convinced of is that lack of 'en-suite' facilities is a human rights issue.

I love the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the things I love most about it is that it its articles are not contingent on available resources or particular levels of affluence. It doesn't list things that we will do one day when we are rich enough, or when our society is developed enough or when we can make a strong enough business case. It lists the things that are such a fundamental or given entitlement of our human condition that they can be effectively realised in any human society anywhere on earth, for free, or at relatively low cost. it costs me nothing, other than the requirement of mindfulness, to act towards my fellow humans in a spirit of brother- or sisterhood; to choose not to discriminate; to choose not to enslave another person; to honour another person's right to think and speak freely. It costs a little more to ensure that everyone has a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of him/herself and of his/her family, or to provide education for all beyond the 'elementary and fundamental' stages, but across the world, it is not prohibitively expensive to do these things. Nowhere on the list do I see an article that enshrines an individual human right to 24-hour-a-day personal access to a fully plumbed toilet.

I presume, although the Guardian article doesn't say so, that the legal challenge to "slopping out" is on the basis of Article 5 – that the practice constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. If there was nowhere to defecate or urinate in a cell at night; if there was no alternative but to lie down to sleep in a foul mess of ones own (or another's) making – as is the case in many prisons across the world – I would absolutely consider that degrading. But we live in a world where £1.2 billion people have to quite ordinarily engage in open defecation; where 1.5 million lives of children under 5 are lost annually to diseases caused by poor sanitation; where girls' education (a right under Article 26) Is disrupted by lack of sanitary facilities in schools, and by their obligations to collect the family's water. We live in a 21st century when cholera is still a killer. But not in our country. Not even in our prisons.  


This does not mean that I think lack of proper toilet facilities in prisons doesn't matter, or that we shouldn't be trying to phase out those remaining locations where slopping out continues. I do question the wisdom of spending public funds on lawyers to both sides of the argument on a case which – if won – will require the diversion of public funds away from other projects and into a prison building / rebuilding programme. I would – of course – fund prison toilets before bankers' bonuses, before cuts in corporation tax, before replacing trident, before electing police commissioners, before restructuring the NHS. But I wouldn't fund them before protecting people with disabilities from benefit cuts, before restoring EMA, before lowering VAT, before implementing a living wage, before investing in restorative justice programmes which might just keep enough people out of prison that we don't need to use old cells which can't accommodate modern plumbing.

If we have limited resources – and we do – I would want to rebuild justice in this world before I rebuilt prisons. I would want to be confident I had secured all the fundamental human rights to which everyone is entitled before I embarked on further upgrades to facilities.

That's what I think about slopping out.


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