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Published on: 12/10/2015

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

Increasing demand

The ratio of prisoners per water tap, toilet and handwashing facility is really wanting

Prison settings are comprised of institutional (prisoners, visitors and staff on duty) and specialised residential areas for prison officers and their families. Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) service needs in prisons are enormous compared to those of the general civilian population.

The characteristics of prison communities are similar to those of refugees. Many people enter prison from courts of law and very few are released. More staff are regularly recruited to match ever increasing numbers of prisoners.

The ratio of prisoners per water tap, toilet and hand washing facility is really wanting. No information about these indicators is available especially in prisons in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The demand for WASH services is ever increasing due to the continuous influx of prisoners and staff without matching provision and increase in these services. The prison will never be empty of both staff families and prisoners in detention, therefore providing better WASH services in prisons in Sub-Saharan Africa would go a long way in improving social welfare of prisoners and prison staff families.

A huge challenge

The old ideology of prison was to punish people by subjecting them to life without a toilet and water inside their sleeping quarters and limiting the time per day they could spend outdoors. Now the available space for sleeping in most prisons has reduced to less than 1 m2 compared to the recommended minimum floor space of 3.6 m2 per prisoner. The capacity of available water systems has been surpassed by more than 250%, which leads to high maintenance costs.

Meeting the WASH requirements for prisons in Sub-Saharan Africa and Uganda in particular is a huge challenge. There are international minimum specifications of 1 tap per 100 detainees, 1 toilet per 25 detainees and 1 handwashing point per 50 detainees (ICRC, 2013)  that can be used as monitoring and evaluation indicators for the status of WASH in prisons.

Also the coverage for water, sanitation and hygiene is supposed to be 100% for prison officers and staff families. However, a recent assessment of Luzira prison in Kampala revealed that the WASH coverage rate was less than 30% compared to 87% coverage in urban areas (Ministry of Water and Environment, 2015).

The increasing number of people living with HIV/AIDS in prison settings requires improved WASH services for both prisoners and staff families.

Changing behaviours, creating change agents

Commissioner General and other senior Officers inspecting the soap produced

Time in prison is a missed opportunity for sustainable behaviour change

The mixed cultures and lack of anal cleansing materials requires a comprehensive hygiene promotion programme in prisons for both staff families and prisoners.

Once a lot of focus is put on WASH promotion in prisons, new behaviours such as defecating in a latrine, washing hands at critical times and participation in maintenance of WASH facilities are likely to form among prisoners and staff families. This will have a direct positive impact on their families and communities outside the prison. They will become change agents to attain open defecation free communities.

Promoting WASH in prisons is crucial to achieve fundamental behaviour change in communities by prisoners who become change agents once they have served their sentence. Investing in prison WASH saves more than we can imagine both while prisoners are incarcerated and upon their release into society. I therefore urge Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and development partners to invest in WASH promotion for sustainable economic and social development of communities. Time in prison is a missed opportunity for sustainable behaviour change.

Ending the bucket system by 2018

Since 2010, prison Top Management in Uganda has made big steps in addressing WASH challenges. Though we have limited budget with so many competing priorities, we have committed to eliminate the use of the night soil bucket system by 2018. The bucket system has become common due to the government’s policy shift from a decentralised to a centralised prison service system in 2006 without providing funding to upgrade it to meet minimum WASH service needs. The national budget has a low allocation for prison services. Therefore the supply of soap for washing hands, water supply and behaviour change among prisoners and staff families remain a huge challenge.

WASH service needs in prisons are similar to those in refugee camps. In both cases, CSOs and development partners do not prioritise WASH promotion.

Benon Ndemere (Environmental Health Officer), Health Inspector, Uganda Prisons Service


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