by W. Wisely
For years, guards and staff at California's Tehachapi prison have kept a secret. A secret now exposed in a lawsuit pending trial in a Fresno County federal court. A secret discovered by prisoners who obtained copies of internal memos and reports from the prison's maintenance department. A secret that caused sores to appear on prisoners for no apparent reason, and to remain open on their skin for months. A secret that caused the water prisoners used to bathe in, drink from, and cook with to make them sick.
"There's basically feces in the water," said Herman Franck, a San Francisco attorney representing the plaintiffs. The lawsuit is just one of dozens detailing injuries suffered by Tehachapi prisoners because of the contaminated water supply. The suit describes how more than 400 prisoners developed symptoms ranging from simple "sneezing" to "tiny clusters of pus-filled bumps covering their... face, penis and scrotum." According to the suit, at least one prisoner has died so far from the contaminated water.
Prisoncrats predictably denied the water is tainted. The California Department of Corrections protested in court that "millions of free Americans do not receive water that is as wholesome" as that afforded Tehachapi prisoners. A prison doctor told the court prisoners are faking their symptoms. The lawsuit amounts to complaining about "not enough peanuts in my peanut butter," said Joan Cavanagh, the deputy state attorney general assigned to the case. Yet, other state agencies confirmed the prison's water was unfit for human use.
The California Department of Health Services has reported for years that wells supplying water to Tehachapi prison are polluted. In a November 1993 engineering report, the agency warned the wells "are not an acceptable source of supply and should not be used." Health Services ordered the prison to shut the wells down more than four years ago. Prison officials refused to obey. Richard Haberman, a senior sanitary engineer with the agency, said his staff were shocked to find the prison's waste treatment plant located right next to wells used to supply drinking water.
"I don't think there are too many places where you'd find the community would put wells around their sewage-treatment pond," Haberman told The Wall Street Journal in an article published October 1, 1998. Haberman said he immediately notified prison officials and asked them to relocate the wells a safe distance away from the pools of raw human waste. The prison ignored the request.
Next, Haberman demanded the prison close the contaminated wells "immediately" as a condition for renewing the prison's November 1993 application for a water-supply permit. Tehachapi's plant operations chief, C.J. Howard, complained that condition was "unwarranted and irresponsible" in a December 1993 internal memo filed as an exhibit in the lawsuit. The Department of Corrections said Health Services failed to show the use of tax dollars to provide uncontaminated water to Tehachapi prisoners was necessary. Haberman's office turned up the heat.
In March 1994, Health Services issued a "compliance order" against the prison, according to the Journal , finding violations of state safe water codes. The agency ordered that either Tehachapi prison's water supply be cleaned up or that the suspect wells be shut off "as soon as possible." Even internal investigation found problems with the water.
In October 1995, the prison's maintenance technicians issued a report to the head of the prison water treatment plant, warning of "a significant trend" in which levels of fecal coliform, a bacteria found only in human feces, were increasing in samples taken from the prison's drinking water. Tehachapi's Associate Warden, T.E. Vaughn, wrote Department headquarters October 1998 admitting the prison's drinking water posed a "serious health threat."
"It may be necessary to supply bottled drinking water to the inmate population and staff ... at any time, and closure of Units I and II may be necessary if corrective action is not implemented in an expedient manner," Vaughn wrote. The memo, undoubtedly written with pending litigation in mind, failed to mention that Tehachapi guards and staff were privately warned to bring bottled drinking water to work. Prisoners and their visitors, including infants, nursing mothers, and pregnant women, were not given that option.
The Journal article claimed contaminated drinking water was a problem only for the prison's Level I and II facilities because they were supplied by wells. The two Level IV facilities, built in the 1980s, were, according to the article, supplied with clean water from the California Aqueduct. That's the problem when reporters write about places they've never been and problems they know nothing about.
When I arrived at Tehachapi's maximum security B Facility in April of 1991, I was struck by three things. The crisp, clean mountain air, the tiny mainline yard, and the horribly tainted water. The shower and drinking water were thick with particulate debris and reeked of human waste. After settling into the routines at my new home, I heard other prisoners complain of sores that wouldn't heal, tiredness, cloudy urine and other symptoms typical of drinking water fouled with human feces. Quietly, I began to ask questions.
The prison's plumbers explained the Level IV facilities drew most of their water from the aqueduct. But, that supply was supplemented regularly by local wells. The same wells found to be contaminated by spillage from the prison's waste treatment plant. And, the plumbers confided with nervous glances over their shoulders, there was a design flaw in the system which allowed waste water to "blow back" into the drinking water supply.
Guards carried bottled water to work each day. I asked one why she bought water rather than drink from the prison's supply. "I'm not supposed to say anything," she whispered, "but the water here is bad for you." Copies of reports from the Department of Health Services and the prison's water treatment staff were slipped under my cell door one cold morning in December of 1995.
For months, I argued with prison administrators that the water supply was contaminated and posed a health threat to prisoners who had to drink and bathe in it. The administrators strongly denied anything was wrong with the water supply and brought the chief of plant maintenance to our Men's Advisory Committee meetings to tell us the water was fine.
I pulled out copies of the water analysis reports. Reports showing the Level IV water supply exceeded healthy levels for coliform bacteria, tri-chlorines, and by products of nitrogen usually associated with run-off from farm land such as that surrounding the prison. Prison staff continued to deny there were problems with the water.
Even when Tehachapi prison failed tests by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which cited the prison for violating water regulations, prison officials stonewalled. "We can have a positive [test] for feces [human waste], but that can be caused by a squirrel getting in there or anything," said Ronald Lewis, Tehachapi's plant supervisor.
Supplying prisoners with contaminated drinking water is nothing new and PLN has reported several similar cases including the outbreak of cancer and other ailments among long-term prisoners at Marion. The number of lawsuits against Tehachapi for exposing prisoners to the dangerously polluted water dramatically grew in number following the United States Supreme Court decision in Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25 (1993).
Helling found that prisoners could state a claim of action under the Eighth Amendment when exposed to second hand smoke. The Court cited other examples in which prisoners didn't have to wait to bring a lawsuit until they suffered irreparable injuries, including exposure to unsafe drinking water. While prison officials argued the difference between federal and state definitions of what constitutes clean drinking water, they continued advising staff to bring bottled water to work, and ignored medical complaints by prisoners who had no choice but to drink water laced with human feces.
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