By Kerry Feeney, Architect

Kerry F sm

 It isn’t glamorous, and maybe architects don’t want to admit it, but we talk about toilets a lot. Whether it is the actual plumbing, occupancy issues, or barrier-free design, the toilet figures prominently in an architect’s life. But in a correctional environment, the throne is king. The decisions we make as designers and operators about where the toilets are located, how they are controlled, how many there will be, and even what they are made of, will have bearing on those living and working in these facilities in ways that are more complicated and profound that just providing a device to accept waste.

Number TEN's interior design work ensures that the commode doesn't cause a commotion.

Dry and Wet Cells

One of the first determinants when designing a detention occupancy is whether the cells are wet or dry—which is to say, with a toilet or without. This decision dictates so much. For example, it often speaks to the level of custody desired. Areas holding higher security inmates are often equipped with wet cells. Correctional officers do not want to escort high-risk inmates to and from the toilet, as too much can go wrong in that journey from cell to toilet. For this reason, day spaces flanked with wet cells are seen as the easier model to supervise.

The toilet’s relationship to the cells also speaks to the amount of “normalcy” that can be brought to the facility. Decidedly, there is nothing ordinary about sleeping in the same room as a toilet, never mind a shared and noisy toilet as is the case within a traditional wet cell configuration.

The toilet location provides insight into the budgets of a facility. Cells with toilets are expensive to build, operate, and maintain. As mentioned, within a wet cell the level of custody can be higher, and often the building materials are very robust, including expensive high security windows, doors and epoxy paint on reinforced concrete block walls. Traditionally, configured wet cells are much more hardened and austere. Adding to their cost, each wet cell is essentially a washroom and its air change rates reflect that. This is quite taxing on the ventilation system and thus more expensive to maintain and operate. The toilet is the essential appendage a locked room requires to create isolation. Even the most benign general population unit outfitted with wet cells can be used as makeshift single occupancy isolation units for extended periods of time.

It is far more cost effective to design dry cells or dormitories with shared washrooms. If cells are dry, ventilation rates can be reduced, and there is opportunity to use building materials and furniture that are less expensive as they do not need to withstand toilet flooding. A dry cell is the best way for an inmate sleeping space to actually resemble a bedroom with non-prison like furnishings. There is never one solution when it comes to toilets in a correctional setting, but is important to understand the benefits and consequences of each typical strategy and match those results with the appropriate population.

Locating the Toilet

The location of the toilet within a wet cell dictates that cell’s accessibility to light and views depending on climate. In parts of the world that experience all four seasons, the toilet is usually placed on an inside wall with a service shaft shared between two cells. This traditional configuration allows for windows (large or small) to be placed on the outside wall, allowing the benefit of views to the exterior and access to direct daylight. Unfortunately, maintenance shafts are then accessed off of day spaces or inmate living areas. As such, each time a shaft needs to be opened for repairs, inmates are locked in their cells. For safety and control of a facility, it is important to have unhindered access to systems for repair and maintenance. It is good practice to avoid staff crossover with inmates as much as possible to limit the number of lockdowns, possibility of complaints including harassment, and opportunities for offenders to access tools or other potentially dangerous items left behind.

Some facilities where maintenance access is prioritized, place toilets on the back walls and provide a continuous service corridor behind the cells. This means that maintenance personnel will enter day spaces much less. However, this solution takes away direct natural light and views from the cells. Instead, cells rely on indirect light from the day space, often with a large window in the cell door to compensate.

Toilet systems can also be accessed on the same wall as the exterior window and as such separation between inmates and maintenance staff is achieved without losing the benefits of natural lights and views. This works best when the facility is one level—otherwise a series of exterior catwalks must be provided, then protected from inmate access.

If a facility, or area within a facility, has dry cells or dorms, no toilet service shafts are required so windows with light and views are accomplishable.

In a day space with dry cells, toilets are usually centralized and are often placed with showers in order to make the most of plumbing adjacencies. This grouping is essentially derivative of a residential washroom and as such is much more “normative” than the wet cell alternative. It is worth investigating if this proximity works in corrections, however. Co-locating toilets and showers creates very humid conditions that need to be carefully mechanically controlled; toilet room floors become more slippery and finishes deteriorate and collect mold and mildew more readily. When toilets are centralized, staff sightlines become more critical, especially when grouped with showers that are notoriously ‘good’ places for prison assaults allowing for easy clean-up of blood after a physical attack. It should be noted that centralized toilets also give inmates less access to toilets as permission to use them, often needs to be granted by a Corrections Officer.

Toilet Materiality

Even the material of the toilet has been a contentious subject–dividing the policies of the correctional management and the wishes of maintenance staff. Most modern prison toilet are stainless steel. However, our residential, commercial, and civic spaces almost exclusively have porcelain toilets: there is nothing normative about stainless steel toilets. This is why one superintendent, whose design mandate was to humanize a new facility, requested that the building have porcelain toilets within the general population, special needs and even step-down unit cells. It became a prickly issue as maintenance personnel were convinced that the porcelain fixtures would be vandalized. The facility has been operational for four years now and the porcelain toilets are still intact.1 Manufacturers are beginning to powder coat their stainless steel detention toilets and sinks to “look like porcelain but wear like stainless steel.”2

Toilet Abuses

Another concern surrounding the materiality of porcelain toilets is the ability to use them as weapons. Toilets of these materials can be smashed creating shards to be used for self-harm or to harm others. This is not to say that stainless steel toilets are never used for self-harm. Thankfully, suicide-resistant toilets can be specified when required.

The toilet is also used as a tool for protest or punishment. Most evident in wet cells equipped with electronic flush valve controls, toilets can be used as a key instrument in power plays between inmates and correctional officers. This power play can work both ways. As Shawn Bush of “Correctional News” explains:

Inmates use the toilet variously as a garbage can, a drinks cooler, a laundry facility, or as a means to dispose of contraband. In addition, flushing sheets, clothing or other items provides a quick, convenient and effective method of flooding housing units to disrupt facility operations or register dissatisfaction. Although many inmate movements, actions and liberties are controlled by the correctional officer, the in-cell plumbing fixture remains one of the last areas of control in many facilities — inmates can flush as much of whatever they chose as frequently as they like…and they do.3

There is no doubt that electronic flush valve controls are desirable for water savings because of the abuses descried above, but electronic flush valves also come with the ability to control overuse by setting the maximum times any fixture function can be used within a 24-hour period or even to lockout fixtures. Depriving detainees in wet cells of a working toilet allows Correctional Officers to discourage flushing abuses. Ironically, these technologically advanced toilet systems thus have the capacity to purposefully create unsanitary living conditions that harken back to the Victorian days of “slopping out”.4

Toilets & Gender

To see the prison toilet as a political device, there are gender differences to consider. First, within the centralized toilet model we heed the fact that women, both incarcerated and in general society, express discontent due to the lack of toilets in many building types. This deficiency of toilets creates long lines that just don’t exist for men. The number of toilets in such facilities is set by minimum Building Codes that are often authored and controlled by men. Soraya Chemaly has recently discussed this issue in her article for Time.com “The Everyday Sexism of Women Waiting in Public Toilet Lines.”5 Generally speaking, when designing correctional facilities for women or female youth with centralized toilets, it is worthwhile to reconsider the minimum toilet numbers as dictated in our jurisdictions and to think instead about the schedule of shared toilets, the occupant load at peak times, and account for the minutes that the average occupant takes to toilet.

Indeed, in the decentralized toilet model, where each cell has a toilet, many of the above-mentioned frustrations go away, but gender differences still resonate and the implications can be serious. At the 2011 AIA Academy of Architecture for Justice Conference, presenters commented:

Women have a different relationship with the toilet. […] Not only do women sit on the toilet at each use unlike their male counterparts, but they need to disrobe more significantly at each use as well. Consequently, for the female inmate, sometimes dressed in a standard issue jump suit, the simple task of urinating not only becomes incredibly cumbersome– but also leaves the offender quite exposed especially when the toilet is positioned near the windowed cell door. This exposure is amplified and complicated by the fact that women menstruate.6

This female “relationship” to the toilet raises issues such as sightlines. Women often report feeling shame from having to use the lavatory in front of male guards. Very often the toilet is situated beside the windowed cell door, unobscured, allowing even casual passersby to observe toileting. This scenario makes it difficult for the female incarcerated population, some of whom are sexually abused from a young age,7 to begin to regain their dignity.

As a feminist counterpoint, Dr. Jami Anderson of the University of Michigan at Flint urges us to get over our toilet anxieties:

If we are ever to realize a fairer, more equal society, we need radically to rethink our toilet anxieties. Toileting is a vital human activity; unjust toileting policies...affect us in a deeply personal way. And prisons, because they institutionalize profound disparities of power, are sites in which we should be particularly certain to cast aside toilet anxieties and instead evaluate policies according to the highest standards of equality and fairness, not in terms of our fear of exposed genitals.8

To speak of gender and anxieties surrounding toilets, it is imperative to consider those who do not conform to standardized norms, such as individuals in the transgender community. Here, society’s amplified predilection to focus on genitals and toilets could not be more harmful. Arizona, for instance, has been grappling with a bill that would have made it a crime for a transgendered person to use a bathroom other than his or her birth sex. Society continues to work through its public toilet angst, and transgender issues are gaining more attention and visible accommodations have been made.9 Once incarcerated, however, the transgender community offers more complications for consideration. Even when arrested on non-violent sex and drug charges, this portion of the prison population is often segregated from general population for their own protection. In this living arrangement, they can use the toilet and shower in private and avoid the possibility of rape. Although a form of protection, this can lead to a very isolated existence while incarcerated.


Norway’s Halden Prison has been hailed as the most humane prison in the world and offers a prime example of good prison toilet design. It has as a standard a single occupancy cell with large windows, light control, furniture that exceeds detention-grade, and comes appointed with a TV and fridge. More to the point, Halden addresses issues of privacy with the use of small ensuites equipped with a toilet, sink, and shower. There is an interesting pilot here—well worthy of study. Would these ensuites limit the need for expensive electronic flush valve systems? Lower the abuse of toilets by inmates? Would reduced ventilation costs offset construction costs? Would at-risk individuals find more dignity with an ensuite toilet? Clearly the answers are not easy, but it is a way to move forward with a different model to accommodate diverse inhabitants.

Final Thoughts

We need to do better, but it will require determination, dialogue, money, and better toilets. We need to be thoughtful about the toilet decisions we make and consider the populations that use them. The toilet all too often dictates the environment. Cells are in many ways rooms centralized around the toilets. Sequentially, day spaces and program areas are centralized around cells. Then access occurs between them. Essentially these are the drivers of traditional correctional facility planning. Perhaps too often, we are choosing the most hardened (wet cells, stainless) or the most convenient toileting (centralized, electronic flush valves) solutions. With an improved understanding of the impact of the toilet, can we offer the incarcerated population dignity, privacy, a sense of normalcy, and even better protection under the Prison Rape Elimination Act? While admittedly these questions appear optimistic at the moment, taking seriously what is at stake in asking them could help us make a real difference to those who experience life in our prison systems.


1. This was the author’s personal experience as the Project Architect for the New Women’s Correctional Centre in Headingley, Manitoba.

2. Metcraft Industries Incorporated, “Stainless Steel Replacement Fixtures for Vitreous Porcelain,” http://www.metcraftindustries.com/Resources/Metcraft%20Vitreous%20China%20v2.pdf.

3. Shawn Bush, “Pipe Down,” Correctional News, http://www.correctionalnews.com/articles/2009/12/9/pipe-down.

4. Slopping out refers to “the emptying of buckets of human waste when the cells are unlocked in prisons in the morning. Inmates without a toilet in the cell have to use a bucket or chamber pot while locked in during the night” (“Slopping out,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slopping_out). Although abolished in most of the modern western world, this method of “slopping out” is still practiced in antiquated facilities in the Republic of Ireland, including prisons in Limerick and Cork, and has created numerous legal claims from inmates against the state (see “Slopping out: Irish prisoners line up for €4.2m payout,” Irish Independent, http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/slopping-out-irish-prisoners-line-up-for-42m-payout-31154067.html, 19 April 2015).

5. See Chemaly, “The Everyday Sexism of Waiting in Public Toilet Lines,” Time.com, http://time.com/3653871/womens-bathroom-lines-sexist-potty-parity/.

6. Number TEN Architectural Group, “An Architectural Viewpoint on Female Incarceration,” AIA Academy of Architecture for Justice Conference, Los Angles, November 2011.

7. For more on this issue, see especially, Malika Saada Saar, et al., “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” Human Rights Project for Girls, http://rights4girls.org/wp-content/uploads/r4g/2015/02/2015_COP_sexual-abuse_layout_web-1.pdf.

8. Jami Anderson, "Bodily Privacy, Toilets, and Sex Discrimination: The Problem of 'Manhood' in a Women's Prison" in Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, eds. Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2009), 91.

9. Educational facilities have led the charge on this with many school boards passing motions to create genderless bathrooms for students.

Kerry Feeney is the current Chair of the AAJ Communications committee. She is also an architect with over 15 years of experience working on complex, major public projects with a focus on high security environments in Police Services and Corrections. Most importantly, she is married to Peter and a mom to Kate and Ben.

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