Sunday, January 22, 2012

The History of Defecation

My brief post on Improbable Correlations prompted a comment that the toilet habits of prisoners are a mystery to the uninitiated. This itself caused me to ponder the changing nature of prison society and how that has been reflected in our toilet habits. I can't say that this is a conceptual lens often selected by prison sociologists...

Back, so to speak, "in the day", the focus of our bodily emissions was a plastic bucket. "The day" in question being any time period up into recent years, but stretching back over a century. Strangely to modern ears, some of the first British prisons were actually constructed with full-scale in cell sanitation (Pentonville?), which was later removed.
And so crapping into a plastic container became the norm. The fortunate had an aptly brown two-gallon plastic bucket complete with white plastic lid. The less fortunate had to suffer a translucent plastic potty.
There are unspoken norms which demand compliance when using pisspots, particularly in a shared cell. The most important of these is not to use them to defecate. This stinks out the cell, and later stinks out the communal slopping-out sluice. Defecation must rather take place onto, or into, newspaper, pieces of prison clothing, plastic bags, and so on. The end product is neatly folded and flung out of the cell window, to be dealt with by the yard cleaning party (known variously as the Wombles or Bomb Disposal). These are the legendary "shit-parcels" , the despair of HM Inspectorate of Prisons and miscellaneous prison reformers.
Urination, then, should be the sole order of the day when using a pisspot. Emptying the containers first thing each morning became an opera of wretchedness. Hundreds of men would converge upon the communal washroom (known as "recess") and each empty their pisspot down a large white square earthenware sink. The stench of urine which had been left to fester in buckets for many hours was one of the defining smells of prison life. One can only imagine how much worse that would be if the prisoners had opted to crap in those buckets as well.
According to our political masters, slopping out was abolished in 1996.1 know because I recall hearing it on the radio news, just before I went to empty my bucket. Such a cognitive dissonance of reality clashing with declaration is not uncommon in prison affairs and so I barely had time to twitch into a cynical grin before joining the queue in the recess.
But this is to jump ahead, to overlook one of the consequences of the wave of unprecedented riots that brought the system to the verge of collapse in 1990. Afterwards, a deliberate effort was made to improve some of the physical conditions of prison and our sanitary arrangements were one focus of change. Cells which were judged to be large enough had a toilet bowl and sink levered into them, usually in a fetching style I call "prison service steel".
Cells which are not large enough for in-cell toilets found themselves in a twilight existence characterised by both piss buckets and toilets. Cell doors were electronically wired to a control system so that, during periods of lock up, prisoners could be unlocked for a few minutes in order to use the communal toilets. This sounds like an eminently sensible system. But that characterisation would be to overlook the prison setting.
This system works on an electronically set timer and queuing system. Hit your bell to join the queue for a pee at 9 pm and you may have to wait hours before the system unlocks your door. The obvious solution to such emergencies is to rely on a bucket in the cell.
In a shameless reversal of position, however, those desperados who are forced to use such a container now face disciplinary charges for "endangering health and safety"! This is despite the fact that there remain small enclaves around the prison system which remain bereft of either in-cell toilets or electronic access. Pisspots continue to exist, with all of the distaste that has accompanied them through prison history.
These sanitary improvements have also seen the loss of the communal toilets (recesses) in many prisons. Prior to in-cell sanitation these were the only place to defecate without having to hover one’s buttocks above the centre pages of the Daily Mail, throwing arm at the ready. A line of stalls sat across the rear of each recess, each divided from the passing population by a mere half-door. Of course, such toilets still exist but more in solitary splendour, tucked away in workshops or the education department. In Closed prisons, no toilet has a full-sized door lest it conceals some unknown but suspected wickedness.
In-cell sanitation sounds like the largest leap forward in prison conditions since the abolition of hanging, but it carries with it the traditional difficulties attending our toilet issues. In a shared cell, for example, defecation, sleeping and eating all takes place in a few square feet and each pairing of cellmates must work out for themselves issues of privacy and decency. Often there is no more that can be done than turn ones head away. The nose must take the brunt of the insult.
The circumstances in which prisoners are compelled to empty our bowels reflects the attitudes of the wider society and the guardians of the prison system. It is a story that comprises a complete lack of privacy and a century long disregard for basic decency, only to change following our largest violent uprising. Even now, the matter of attending to our waste is fraught with difficulty.
Perhaps the cynic had it right when he suggested that the only solution is to provide a pipe of the correct diameter that feeds right from our cells straight back to the prison kitchen...



    Interesting and relevant blog

  2. That last paragraph was mean't as a sick joke right, it certainly made me gag rather, but overall, this post is really interesting.

    The shit museum in Holland ought to include something about defecation in prisons if they havn't already, it's interesting. The shit museum is the only one in the world all about shit. Although I have never been there myself, have only heard about it.

    There is a shameful history in the not too distant past, where prisoners were made to piss and shit in a large hallway type room and were made to live in it. There was a gallery above the large room where society folk would organise tours to watch and hold their noses at the poor and wretched of the earth. I believe this particularly nasty form of punishment goes back to the time of the Paris Commune. It was an act of revenge by the state against the people of the Paris Commune after the state had brutally crushed it.

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