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California Prisoners Still Forced to Drink Arsenic-Laced Water

by David M. Reutter

Prisoners at California’s Kern Valley State Prison in Delano are being slowly poisoned through their drinking water. The “state of the art” facility opened at a cost of $379 million in 2005; the water problem was discovered within weeks of the prison’s opening, but years later nothing has been done. [See: PLN, June 2009, p.26].

Tests reveal that the water at Kern Valley contains up to twice the federally permitted standard for arsenic levels, which is 10 parts per billion.

“The standard was set for a reason, and the reason is that arsenic is known to cause cancer in humans,” said Dr. Gina Solomon, with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, long-term exposure to arsenic can cause “cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidneys, nasal passages, liver, and prostate.”

A January 2011 memo to prisoners from Kern Valley’s warden, M.D. Biter, revealed the lackadaisical approach taken by prison officials. “This is not an emergency,” the memo stated. Prisoners “do not need to use an alternative water supply (e.g., bottled water).”

Of course, prisoners have no choice but to drink the water that’s made available to them. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, most guards at the facility bring bottled water to work. Prisoners’ requests for bottled water were denied.

“Kern Valley State Prison is working with Facilities Planning, Construction, and Management to install an Arsenic Treatment System,” said the memo. “We anticipate resolving the problem by October 2011.”

A previous memo issued by then-warden Anthony Hedgpeth, dated April 8, 2008, had “anticipated resolving the problem by June 2009.” That memo noted that people drinking the water may experience skin damage or circulatory system problems, and may have an increased risk of cancer.

“It’s cloudy. It’s fuzzy. It’s got an awful taste to it. It doesn’t taste like normal water,” said Kern Valley prisoner Andre Jackson. “You just have to let it sit for 30 minutes before you drink it.”

A December 2008 order issued by the California Department of Public Health found a “violation of the arsenic maximum containment level” at the prison. The order threatened “judicial action, including civil penalties” if prison officials failed to draw up a plan and time schedule to fix the problem; however, it failed to specify a date by which the facility must be in compliance.

Prison officials claim they have acted. “Kern Valley State Prison has met the terms of its compliance order. No penalties are warranted at this time,” stated CDOC spokesman Ken August. He said the water filtration project “should go out to bid soon,” and actual construction “should start within six months and take one year for completion.” The filtration system is estimated to cost around $6 million.

“They really don’t care,” countered Bertha Nava, the mother of a prisoner who has been forced to drink the water at Kern Valley for five years. The water appears to be “like part urine, part water,” she said.

“My son is supposed to be released in 13 years. Well, what medical problems is he going to have when he’s released? Will he be able to function normally? Or is he going to be released just to die from cancer because of the water?” Nava asked. “It seems like it’s not a big issue to them, but I’m sure the warden doesn’t drink the water.”

Other prisoners’ families have gotten involved, including Blanca Gonzalez, who collected around 2,000 signatures on a petition demanding that prison officials take action to address the facility’s arsenic-laced water.

Meanwhile, Scott Kernan, undersecretary of operations for California’s prison system, has set another deadline for resolving the arsenic contamination at Kern Valley. “We anticipate fully resolving this problem by August 2012,” he said, echoing previous unfulfilled promises by prison officials.

Sources:,, North County Reporter, Los Angeles Times

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