Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Three California Prisons Ration Water Due To Contaminated Wells

by John E. Dannenberg

When wells at the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP) and Sierra Conservation Center (SCC) state prisons became contaminated, water was severely rationed until repairs could be made.

In June, 2004, when maximum-security SVSP's well water was determined to be contaminated, the 4,500 prisoners there were restricted initially to three six ounce cups of water per day for all purposes. Toilet flushes were reportedly delayed for up to ten hours. Following complaints, water rations were increased to 64 ounces per day and toilet flushes to every three hours, according to SVSP spokesman Lt. Eloy Medina, who reported morale pretty good." Three-minute showers were added later.

The problem began when one of the 1996 prison's two wells became contaminated with nitrate pollution from leaking septic systems and regional agricultural fertilizers leaching into the groundwater. An emergency hookup to adjacent Soledad State Prison brought some relief, but not enough to quench SVSP's daily thirst for 700,000 gallons. An interim solution was to permit the contaminated water to be used for showers and toilets only. The long term solution will be a water filtration system, anticipated to be installed by the end of 2004.

In August, 2004, about 20 prisoners at CRC (southern California) complained of stomach illnesses and were diagnosed as suffering from Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium found in the stomachs of about 50% of the population. H. pylori is known to cause ulcers, gastric distress, bloody stools and stomach cancer. The prisoners complained that it came from the brown water that flowed from prison pipes. The prison tests its water twice weekly for H pylori and has always tested negative. Staff sent a memo to the prisoners advising that they needed to have good personal hygiene, eat properly prepared food and drink from a clean, safe water source. But some of CRC's 4,600 male and female prisoners still resorted to filtering the brown water coming from the taps, using socks on the showerheads, while other prisoners refused to wash at all, to prevent rashes.

Spokesperson and regular prison visitor Judy Greenspan of prisoner advocacy group California Prison Focus said that thousands of inmates statewide ... are infected with H. pylori," adding, I thing it's coming from the prison kitchens and dirty cells." Prison Doctor Sary Grover opined that the infected prisoners carried the disease since childhood. He added that when prisoners see discolored water, they think it's bad, but CRC Lt. Tim Sherlock said the water is treated with chlorine. A year ago, an old well supplying CRC was abandoned when the prison hooked up to the city of Norco's water system.

In January, 2005, upon record winter storms hitting the Sierra Nevada mountains, silt roiled up in Tulloch Reservoir (which supplies SCC) and clogged the prison's filtration system. As a result, the 600,000 gallon daily flow was reduced to 400,000, according to SCC Lt. Jim Hurtado. To compensate, showers were canceled for two days, disposable food trays were used, laundry was sent to other prisons, truckloads of drinking water were brought in and 90 portable toilets were installed.

Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, Press Enterprise, Sacramento Bee.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login