Written by Duncan Shallard-Brown

When most people think of Panama, they might picture a beautiful beach and blue seas, favourable tax arrangements or even England’s 6-1 win in the World Cup earlier this year. For David, however, who was detained in a Panamanian prison, the reality was very different.

The conditions in Panama, as in the rest of South and Central America, are incredibly challenging. There are safety concerns, lack of facilities and overcrowding, which is all compounded by the extremely poor sanitation:

“We rely on water which is brought from a nearby river to wash ourselves, flush our excrement down, have our showers, drink water etc. During the summer months, we only get water twice a day…one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening.”

David had no choice but to use the water from the river, as purchasing a fresh bottle can mean that gangs try to take it, and refusal can result in serious consequences. It might seem logical that the rainy season in the autumn and winter would result in respite, however this was not the case for David:

“...the water pumps are usually damaged because of the dirt which accumulates when the water-level increases. At this time of year the whole prison can be without one drop of water. As a consequence, we are forced to remain dirty, defecate in a bag that we then throw outside…”


These conditions mean that disease is rife, with the lack of water contributing to poor health and therefore making inmates more vulnerable to any outbreaks.  The fact that water, the most basic of human requirements, can be in such short supply exemplifies not only how perilous David’s situation was but also the poor conditions that can be found in Panama, and across South and Central America.

Countries throughout the region share many of the problems that David describes, including overcrowding, poor sanitation and gangs. Peru is currently the country where Prisoners Abroad has the most service users in South and Central America, though there are also individuals being held in Venezuela, Brazil and Colombia, amongst others.

As institutions in these places require that food, water and medication are paid for by the prisoner, our grants are crucial in helping them survive. What we cannot change, however, is lack of sanitation, be it no running water or the absence of a working toilet. On World Toilet Day, it is a sobering thought that this simple human necessity is something that huge numbers of prisoners around the world are still without.

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