MCI has a long history of water contamination. It became such a problem in 1999 that 700 prisoners were evacuated to the South Florida Reception Center Annex (SFRC). [See: PLN, May 2000, p.14]. Those prisoners were all from the open population units. Meanwhile, prisoners in segregation were left to languish on an 8-ounce cup of water every eight hours, and had to use portable toilets and shower units.
The water problems at MCI, however, go back much further than 1999. The prison was forced by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to build a new treatment plant in 1990. Still, in 1994 MCI was one of several prisons cited statewide for violating water quality standards for lead and copper. As recently as 2002, contaminants in the water at MCI were two to five times the maximum allowable levels.
To protect themselves from the hazardous effects of MCI’s water, prisoners developed their own methods to avoid drinking it. For example, the prison population often would not be given bad water warnings until 2 or 3 days after the water turned bad. To determine whether or not the water was safe, prisoners flushed their white porcelain toilets to see if the water had a yellow tinge to it before they would drink from the fountain.
While the evacuated prisoners were at SFRC in 1999, MCI drilled new wells. The seven wells that the self-contained prison water treatment plant drew from were either clogged, unproductive or out of service. Even with the new wells, prisoners who worked at the treatment plant warned that the water contamination problem was not solved.
“The dried up wells are a problem but not the problem,” said one prisoner. “The real problem is that the middle tank in the process is a solid block of lime because they failed to spend money for the chemicals. To solve it, they merely bypassed that tank, skipping part of the treatment process.”
In December 2006, DEP entered into a legally binding agreement with the FDOC. That agreement requires changes to MCI’s water treatment system to reduce levels of trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, which increase the risk of cancer for people who drink excessive amounts over many years.
Considering that prisoners normally stay at one facility for a lengthy period of time before FDOC will transfer them, and the only thing available to drink is the prison’s water, MCI prisoners are at high risk.
The FDOC, however, has used the water problem to make money – MCI is the only prison in the state that sells bottled water in its canteen.
The larger issue revolves around the FDOC’s agreement with DEP. Estimates to upgrade MCI’s water system are around $18 million. “We don’t yet know how much it will cost to address the quality issues,” acknowledged FDOC spokeswoman Grell Plessinger.
The quantity of water produced at MCI is also problematic. The facility currently operates under capacity due to insufficient water production, with 550 empty beds. The state legislature has appropriated $4.7 million for repairs, but that amount is just a drop in the bucket. One option is to do away with the prison’s on-site treatment plant and tap the municipal water supply.
The hefty cost assessment for upgrading MCI’s water system, and the uncertainty of whether the water problem will be solved, has the FDOC considering closing the facility. How that will happen when Florida’s prison system is already bursting at the seams from overpopulation – and needs an ever-increasing number of prison beds to quench the state’s thirst for more incarceration as a result of tough-on-crime laws – remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, MCI prisoners’ risk of cancer grows with every cup of contaminated water they drink. For more on prison-related water and environmental issues see the cover story in the November 2007 issue of PLN.
Sources: Palm Beach Post, www.tcpalm.com
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