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Access to water and sanitation is a basic human right. No one, whatever their circumstances, should be forced to live in conditions where these services are not made available. And yet this is the case for many inmates in overcrowded prisons around the world. 

Blog by Marielle Snel and Liz Kendall

Although there are a number of clear guidelines on how to handle WASH in prisons (see the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) manual and guidelines), the rare data that does exist on prisons indicates that there are serious needs in these settings. In places of enforced confinement such as prisons and other places of detention, access to basic necessities and a hygienic environment are of the utmost importance for ensuring that the inmates remain in good health. Supplying sufficient amounts of water is one of the basic services which must be provided without interruption in any place where persons deprived of their freedom are being held. Every human being generates waste. One individual produces an average of 1 to 2 litres of waste per day. This figure represents the volume of urine and faeces and does not include materials used for anal cleansing or the amount of water used for washing. Therefore the need for adequate sanitary facilities is of critical importance.

Handwashing at Namalu Prison, Karamoja. Uganda. Photo: African Prisons Project

A recent baseline study done by IRC in UNICEF’s OneWASH Plus programme in Ethiopia has provided some interesting data on four prisons located in the towns Abomsa, Sheno, Welenchiti and Wukro. The data shows that only two out of the four prisons have adequate WASH facilities. The prison located in Abomsa, for example, does not have a water supply in the compound, but depends on a piped water supply from outside the compound. There are no latrine facilities for the 424 male and 14 female inmates. The Police Detention Centre in Welenchiti also does not have any sanitation facilities for its 32 inmates.

Even though there are many individual case studies, such as the example cited above, the WASH sector still clearly lacks a comprehensive global evaluation of WASH in prisons. As a result there is a lack of corresponding national policies. In the secondary data collection research done by Liz Kendall, our WASH Away from Home intern, she only came across one document from the Colombian government summarising the state of WASH in their nation’s prisons and setting out clear goals to improve the situation!

In terms of the way forward, there are many ways in which WASH targets for prisons could be worked into national policy and WASH plans. It can be addressed directly in the national WASH plan of action or by the government division in charge of prison management.   

The ICRC has done a considerable amount of work linking WASH in prisons to basic human rights issues like human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation to health, and UN standards for imprisonment. Currently the issue of WASH in prisons is not being prioritised enough at national policy level. Inevitably this issue lends itself to potentially larger scrutiny of a country’s judicial system. However, as cited at the start of this blog, WASH in prisons is a human right no matter what the circumstances of individuals and as such should continue to be advocated for by the international community and implemented at national level. 

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