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The Sanitary Situation in US Prisons

The Founder of FLUSH recently visited the historic Alcatraz in San Francisco, CA (USA). Viewing the prominence of toilets in prison cells led to exploring more about how inmates interact with toilets in US prisons. This blog will look at images from Alcatraz as we talk about modern US prisons' water and sanitation systems.

A view of Alcatraz Island (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Touring Alcatraz…and Sanitary Systems

Entering the military barracks of Alcatraz (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Initially a military fortress in the 1850s, Alcatraz was one of the most famous prisons in the world, working as a federal prison in San Francisco from 1933 to 1963. Given the island’s remoteness, it is considered one of the country's first supermax prisons. It held some of its time’s most dangerous convicted felons, such as Al Capone and "Machine Gun" Kelly. Alcatraz closed as it became more expensive to run and renovate, as it was already the most expensive prison. In the 1960s, it also played a role in Native American occupations across the country in protest to US government native policies.

Photos from left to right: The shower room, the laundry area, Block A cells (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

The shower room had no walls and 40 spouts that had warm water. Inmates had to shower without privacy to prevent attacks. Each inmate had their own small cells of 45 square feet (4.2 square meters), with a cot, sink, and toilet prominently covering the back wall. During its first 3 years of operations, Alcatraz was supposed to be a silent prison, so inmates rigged their toilet pipes to talk with each other. The cell sinks only ran cold water, and the toilets used seawater to flush everything – including raw sewage - into the Bay. There were other, more extreme cells, such as the Hole, which was pitch-black with no amenities. Inmates in the Hole had to find the small hole in the corner to relieve themselves.

Knowing this information about a US federal prison closed 60 years ago, what do modern state-run prisons in the US look like? We did some research and talked to Social Justice Advocate Jesse Crosson about what it's like for inmates today. While prison toilets are a key facility for inmate life, they don’t ensure good access and can cause environmental degradation.

Living Around One's Toilet

Photos from left to right: Alcatraz cells in the B-Block, cells in the D-Block (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

There are two kinds of prisons into which people are placed in modern prisons. One type of prison is in a dorm format, where inmates share rooms and common spaces. The other one has more traditional cells, where inmates may or may not have cellmates, depending on the security level. For this blog, we'll refer to the latter, as that was what was in Alcatraz.

Photos from left to right: A high-security toilet from the Plumbing Museum, Alcatraz D-Block showers, an Alcatraz cell with a broken toilet (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Architects that design prison cells put toilets as central to their cell designs - the toilets have to be viewable at all times. Cells with toilets are expensive because of all the plumbing that goes into the rooms. Still, mandates indicate that inmates must have access to bathroom facilities 24 hours a day, so cells must be fitted appropriately. Shower access depends on the prison, but statewide prisons keep the showers open all day unless the prison is in lockdown, Mr. Crosson said.

Because of the large chunk of real estate toilets take up in basic cells, inmates use toilets for many purposes like laundry, keeping drinks cool, and disposing of garbage. Toilet multiuse means prison flushes often run on a vacuum system to reduce the risk of clogs. Mr. Crosson told us that there have also been instances of toilets breaking after inmates use them as vessels to heat food (when there are no microwaves).

Toilets can have another function – making toilet wine, or pruno, in bags held in the bowl. Inmates can find ways to make it with stored fruits and bread rolls, but many prisons try to prevent inmates from making pruno because of the risk of botulism from improperly-fermented food. Mr. Crosson suspects it’s likely uncommon to make pruno¸ though, since the toilet water is typically pretty cold.

Alcatraz's water tower and storage (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Having a job at the prison can be an earned privilege, so prison plumbers are often inmates. If lucky, an inmate can get trained to work at a local wastewater treatment plant – this is really desirable for many inmates because they can leave the prison for work while getting skilled up for a job once freed.

What is it like to share a toilet in the open with a cellmate? Mr. Crosson told us that the courtesy flush in prisons is a critical way to keep cellmates comfortable and give some kind of privacy -to smells and sounds, at least. A courtesy flush is specifically to move fecal waste out of the toilet bowl to prevent the smell from spreading in the cell, and it can be serious business. For example, suppose a cellmate wouldn't flush out of courtesy while defecating. In that case, it could be seen as very rude or disrespectful…and there could be repercussions from the other cellmate. Cellmates also sometimes coordinate their toilet schedules to use the facilities without the other cellmate.

Reduced Access with Toilet Lockouts

B-Block cells at Alcatraz (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Mr. Crosson mentioned that it could be nice for inmates to have the strangely convenient toilet only a few feet from their beds. Still, access to toilets isn't always easily attained. Sometimes, water shortages mean inmates don't have access to water or flushing toilets.

Also, courtesy flushes can be problematic for inmates to access their sanitation rights. Often, cell flushes have a lockout feature that prevents toilets from being flushed more than a few times in a couple of minutes. In some state-run prisons, if an inmate flushes the toilet twice within a few minutes as courtesy flushes, the third flush within 5 minutes could lockout the toilet's flushing for up to an hour. This can make inmate life miserable, especially during a bout of food poisoning (which, of course, happens) and during the COVID pandemic.

Breaking Systems, Gross Environments

A view of the San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Unfortunately, state-run prisons' sanitation systems can degrade environments – inside and out. For example, during prison lockdowns, sometimes the officers can shut off the water so that inmates can't flush anything out of their cells. Shutting off the water, of course, means sometimes they don't have access to using their toilets.

Beyond lockdowns, many of the US prisons in the system are overrun and run down. For example, since 2000, over eight prisons in California have been cited for major water pollution because of sewage spills from broken infrastructure. In 2008, one prison in the Bay Area sent over 1,500 gallons of raw sewage into the Bay, similar to how Alcatraz functioned 60 years ago. In US prisons, toilet backups and overflows are not uncommon, either.

Also, Mr. Crosson mentioned that some prisons provide inmates with trash bags with holes in them to prevent things like pruno from happening. Unfortunately, the bags easily leak if there's any organic matter, making it a sanitary nightmare. And trash emptying can depend on who has trash duty, which doesn't always happen, especially during a lockdown. In protest, inmates sometimes throw trash on the ground, degrading their environment in hopelessness.

US prisons are pain points we must address to ensure universal access to clean water and safe toilets. It’s a tricky context to get right – how do you give people access to these basic services in a way that is safe for them without risking prison security? Maybe a first place to look could be reviewing how to make the flushing lockout system work more humanely. Or maybe inmates need more opportunities to work in water and wastewater systems. We’re open to ideas – let us know what you think!

A special thanks to Jesse Crosson for talking with us about what sanitation systems are like for inmates and fact-checking!

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