Slopping out: ‘I never thought I’d have to crap in front of a stranger’

A former Mountjoy prisoner remembers ‘a disgraceful, inhumane practice’

Gary Cunningham: “In prison, it’s the tiniest things that make a difference.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Gary Cunningham: “In prison, it’s the tiniest things that make a difference.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Gary Cunningham vividly remembers the first time, at the age of 33, he had to defecate in front of another man.

“My first time doubled up with someone was with a guy called Stretch, and in our very first night together I had to go to the toilet. I’d forgotten, in the excitement of moving in with me new buddy, that I’d have to go to the loo in front of him.”

Cunningham was one of the last prisoners in Mountjoy Prison who had to slop out before the practice came to an end with the refurbishment of the prison.

He was jailed in 2012 for transporting €80,000 worth of ecstasy and cannabis. He received a 3½-year sentence. Bathroom practices were a part of prison life he hadn’t given much thought to before he went away.

“I never thought I’d have to squat in front of a stranger and have a crap. It’s inhumane. It’s embarrassing. You have to live with that crap until the next morning because you’ve nowhere to put it. All that is vile. Thank God it’s now back in the dark ages.”

“Slopping out” is as disgusting as it sounds, he says. Once locked in their cells for the night, prisoners had to use a chamber pot, which they couldn’t empty until the next morning.

“You have a bucket, more or less. Your number one would go in there and for your number two you’d try and fashion a bag or something. The ingenuity of a prisoner is amazing. You soon learn how to pack up away the poo so it doesn’t become a health hazard,” Cunningham says.

“In the morning the officer would open the cell. Every man files out with his chamber pot to a communal, filthy sluice and we’d dump our shit in there. It was vile – it was a disgraceful, inhumane practice.”

Prevention of torture

Later in 2012 Mountjoy, under pressure from the Inspector of Prisons and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, began a massive refurbishment programme, part of which involved giving every prisoner his own cell complete with a flushing toilet.

C-wing was the first to be completed, and Cunningham and others who worked in the prison kitchen were the first to be moved in. For him this was “like winning the Lotto”.

“It was a carrot that was dangled in front of our faces for so long,” he says. “In the cells were these beautiful white porcelain bowls and a beautiful white porcelain sink. It was f***ing incredible.

“In prison it’s the tiniest things that make a difference. I remember I got a slice of toast once and I honestly wanted to buy the person dinner for the rest of their lives. When we got toilets we got our dignity, our privacy.”