In 2020, 26% of the global population did not have safely managed drinking water and 46% lacked sanitation services. According to UN Water, achieving universal access to drinking water by 2030, as set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, requires a substantial increase in investment in water and sanitation facilities. Just as the quality and quantity of water varies in rural and urban areas and depending on a country’s level of income and development, access to clean and safe water in prisons also varies significantly between countries and even facilities within a country.
Prisons around the world face water shortages, unsafe and contaminated water and insufficient sanitation facilities, especially in conflict settings and low and middle-income countries.
Shortages of water in the community are often felt harder in prisons, particularly in conflict areas and low- and middle-income countries. Prison overcrowding and the lack of resources and infrastructure has led to a dire shortage of water in many prisons, both for drinking and preparing food and for sanitation. In Sub-Saharan Africa where one out of three people have no handwashing facility at home, water supplies in prison remain sub-standard. In a number of countries like Central African Republic, Malawi, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Senegal, toilets are often non-functional and water points for toilets and showers are sometimes built near sanitation outflows. In Lebanon, which is affected by an economic and political crisis, prisons too are facing shortages of basic hygiene supplies, lack of resources to undertake repairs to potable water access and people in prison do not have sufficient funds to purchase clean bottled water where tap water is polluted.
In other regions with water scarcity, supplies in prisons are also a low priority. A 2021 report on Haiti by the UN detailed how detainees in cramped conditions have limited access to water and had to use buckets due to the lack of latrines. In Nicaragua and Pakistan, the same water supply, often provided in one bucket, must be used for washing, cooking and drinking. In Colombia and Peru, where facilities rely on supply from neighbouring areas, prisons are affected by water shortages or damage to water supply lines. Prisons are increasingly expected to be affected by drought in urban areas.
In high-income countries, the availability of water for drinking, cooking and sanitation is typically affected in facilities that are old or dilapidated and receive inadequate capital investment. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture found that, in some European prisons, detainees have been expected to purchase bottled water using their limited funds when prisons were unable to fulfil their needs. They also found that access to showers and toilets can be limited and that water supply can be irregular or halted without adequate warning or alternative arrangements.
In Armenia and England and Wales, communal showers were reported to be of low quality, lacked effective ventilation and drainage, and were not sanitised regularly. In Finland, the practice of ‘slopping out’ – manually emptying containers used as toilets in cells overnight due to lack of in-cell sanitation – ended in 2020 when Hämeenlinna Prison was replaced. The practise still exists in two prisons in Ireland, which are yet to benefit from the reform process to provide in-cell sanitation following a Supreme Court decision which found the practice breaches the constitutional right to dignity and prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment.
There is evidence that denial of water for drinking and sanitation continues to be used as a punitive measure. New research coming out of North Korea’s penal system by the NGO, Korea Future, has revealed such practices. An absence of sanitation facilities was found to be characteristic of many detention facilities in the country, with reports of detainees being forbidden by correctional ofcers from maintaining personal hygiene.
Prison overcrowding is a major contributor in all regions to inadequate water and sanitation facilities in prison.
Prison overcrowding is a major contributor in all regions to inadequate water and sanitation facilities. Along with limited access to sanitation, clean water and healthcare, it compounds the risk of infections in prison. In Lebanon’s largest prison, which is operating at four times its capacity, over 100 people reportedly share a single toilet, which creates the conditions for the rapid spreading of diseases. People in a prison in South Africa, where the prison occupancy rate was 127.2% as of March 2021, have narrated instances where they had to use buckets instead of toilets as prisons are overcrowded and there are limited toilets, toilet paper, soap and other cleaning materials. This resulted in unhygienic conditions and illness. Further, in prisons in Turkey, water is provided for one or two hours a few times a week for showers and washing, and many can shower only once a week.
There are many cases where the water supply in prisons is unsafe to drink. In Mexico, for instance, 60% of detainees with access to water do not think it is safe for consumption. There have also been reports of prison water supplies being contaminated by toxins and sewage. The consumption and use of contaminated water, stagnation of waste and leakage of wastewater from pipes, or more generally the lack of access to clean water and sanitation facilities, are factors which increase the risk of transmission of diseases and illness in prisons. In Myanmar’s Insein prison, people developed skin rashes and lesions when they were forced to use dirty and sedimented water as a result of overcrowding. In the US over the last 3 years, water in prisons in Texas has been contaminated by arsenic, and in Arizona by petroleum from a gas station, making it unfit for consumption. Women in New York prisons who consumed contaminated water after Hurricane Ida faced serious gastric ailments while those who could not afford to purchase bottled water were forced to ration their daily water consumption based on the prison’s limited supply.
The COVID-19 pandemic and outbreaks of other infectious diseases like cholera have brought to light the impact of inadequate water supply in many prisons on those detained and staff. In Iran and Turkey, amid COVID-19 outbreaks, reports from 2020 reveal insufficient access to running water, alongside cleaning supplies, and protective equipment in overcrowded conditions. Similarly in Bahrain, two outbreaks in 2021 have been attributed to overcrowding in which water access and hygiene was an issue. In Sierra Leone’s prisons, inadequate water and sanitation facilities meant toilets could not be flushed, affecting air quality inside prison facilities and cells.
In other places, following international calls to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on prison populations globally, action was taken to improve access to water. In a number of African countries including Uganda, Malawi, and Kenya, water tanks and soap were procured, and work has commenced to renovate accommodation to improve ventilation, and access to water. In Haiti, UNICEF commenced a program to install 390 handwashing stations in the country, including in prisons. In Tanzania, 35 handwashing stations with clean water, soap and drainage facilities were installed in four prisons to contain the spread of COVID-19. Elsewhere, like in Panama, a plan to combat potable water shortages in prison has been enacted, which includes bringing in new tanks for transportation, opening new wells and distributing surplus water from some prisons to others in need.
Women, as a minority population in prisons, continue to face specific challenges in accessing water. For instance, people formerly held in a detention centre in Rwanda have described ‘deplorable and degrading conditions’ in the rooms for women and children, with irregular access to drinking water, sometimes only once a day with a small amount for everyone to share. A 2019 report described how women in prison were housed in facilities with broken-down toilets and irregular water supply and could not access toilets during the night. In Cameroon, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe women were forced to use buckets which had to be cleaned manually. Many prison facilities for women in Iran face acute water shortages in the summer, and in one women’s prison, reports claim that only five toilets and three showers are available for almost 300 women.