Broken Toilets: The New Frontier of Prisoner Abuse

The broken toilet is the future frontier of prisoner abuse. Allowing an inmate to exist with a broken or dirty one is easy; the only evidence of it is the inmate's self-report, an account that will be discredited.
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New York Daily News reported this week that an inmate at Rikers, Karim Isa Abdul, was placed in a solitary intake cell that lacked a working toilet. To expel waste, Abdul urinated into a cup and poured it down the sink.

The story may sound far-fetched to the uninitiated but it's actually mild. What happened to me was worse.

When I was in solitary confinement in May 2008, an inmate in a cell above mine tried to flush a clothing item down her toilet.

What would appear to be mental illness was actually cunning on her part; the only way that an inmate can change her housing assignment is to make an essential part of the cell -- the toilet, the sink or the bed -- nonfunctional so staff members are forced to move her to a new location where everything works.

Her loaded flush ended up causing a fecal burp in my toilet, an overflow of human waste that climbed over the seat and coated it. The feces spill dried and no guard would move me. I couldn't use the toilet as it was iced with other's diarrhea. Like Abdul, I urinated into a Styrofoam cup. I was lucky that the guards at the time were dumping my food out on the floor. If I had been eating, I would have just added to the poop pile-up on my toilet.

This lasted for a couple of days. Only when I awoke to a lieutenant's shouting "What's that smell?" and covering his nose with his shirt collar did I realize that the sense-crushing smell was causing me to pass out intermittently. It was the only way I survived those few days without going totally mad.

And the sad part of all of this is that my experience isn't totally unique.

Just this past summer, a federal appeals court approved suit by Aaron Willey, a former inmate of the Wende Correctional Facility, against the State of New York for harassment and distress after prison officials locked him into a solitary cell with a purposely disabled commode. The judge concluded that Willey was "reduced to breathing a miasma of his own accumulating waste."

Neither I nor Abdul nor Willey were allowed to shower sufficiently during these episodes. The standard bathing schedule for solitary confinement is one to three times per week, along with one change of clothes.

The current debate over self-care for prisoners has emerged in a number of ways: female inmates' access to sanitary supplies, access to adequate toilet paper but now we see surfacing a line of stories showing that prisoners can be locked in with their own dung. Or worse: someone else's waste, like I was.

The broken toilet is the future frontier of prisoner abuse. Allowing an inmate to exist with a broken or dirty one is easy; the only evidence of it is the inmate's self-report, an account that will be discredited.

No one would witness what I experienced through a surveillance video. A commode is off-limits from cameras because of the Prison Rape Elimination Act's prohibition on cross-gender genital viewing. Because it was located where I would, if the toilet had been working, lower my bare bottom to use it, there would never be documentary evidence of the filth I was forced to live in.

Denying an inmate food isn't as bad as forcing her to live with scat. The benefits of fasting accrue and, after initial discomfort, don't bother the person who hasn't eaten.

Being unable to use a proper toilet or not bathing doesn't work the same way for a person. Unlike skipping a meal, skipping a shower after inhaling fecal foulness coats an inmate with a slick of self-hatred.

It's not a coincidence that Nazi soldiers enticed concentration camp prisoners to their death in gas chambers that purported to be showers. Who would refuse to bathe after being denied the opportunity for so long and being forced to use wooden-hole latrines?

Arguing that allowing inmates to loll about in their own waste will cause them to reoffend is ultimately unavailing, at least to me. I haven't been tempted to break the law after what happened to me. The humiliation that surrounds normal and unavoidable bodily functions in prison is so common that I doubt it causes such acute psychic pain that someone would actively decide to commit a crime.

The effects of this type of abuse are that the returning citizen is permanently destabilized in reentry. I've developed a type of post-traumatic OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) that makes me hard to live with, even harder than before I was incarcerated. Being locked in a room with uncontained human waste deletes a person's ability to manage her daily activities and neatly fold herself back into society.

I shower at least twice a day regardless of how inconvenient it is, especially after I use a working toilet. When the water had to be turned off in my house overnight because of broken plumbing equipment, I simply refused to go to sleep because I can't get into bed without showering. I fear long periods of time outside of my home because I won't be able to bathe at whim.

My habits have caused me to disrupt my sister and her family when I visited them. They were gracious about it but the experience with the broken toilet has changed how I relate to society.

Since so many prisoners who reenter society find housing with family and friends, the psychological effects of being submerged in feces prevent us from settling down normally in any living situation, even if it's temporary.

It's hard to suggest ways to prevent these broken toilet abuses from happening because the human values involved in not allowing another person to waste in waste are so basic that the thought that they need to be taught to prison staffers makes one want to flush the entire correctional system.

Until correctional facilities decide to hire only morally developed people to serve as prison guards, the cruelty that I and other inmates suffered through living with human waste will likely continue. If that doesn't make your stomach turn, then nothing else about criminal justice will.

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