Is Texas Poisoning Prisoners with Contaminated Water?
by Panagioti Tsolkas
When the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) named a prison unit after the late warden Wallace Pack they should have guessed it would have a problem with water, as he once did. In 1981, Pack was drowned by a prisoner amid a high point of corruption in the Texas prison system. Pack’s death came just months after U.S. District Court Judge William Justice released his landmark decision in Ruiz v. Estelle, blasting Texas prisons for overcrowding, questionable medical practices and extreme brutality. Today the TDCJ is facing allegations of a different type of scandal: failing to protect prisoners from arsenic-tainted water.
Formerly incarcerated at the Wallace Pack Unit, Craig A. Converse, now a paralegal, is working to address long-standing violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. A year before being paroled, Converse was transferred to the Pack Unit in Grimes County near Navasota. It was well into the spring months, the temperatures were high and he was often thirsty. He came to find out that prisoners at the Pack Unit were well-acquainted with thirst.
The TDCJ’s Pack Unit opened in 1983; it is currently a Type I geriatric facility that holds many elderly prisoners requiring constant medical care. A recurring issue at the facility has been dealing with the effects of excess heat – so much so that a civil rights lawsuit was filed against the TDCJ on behalf of Pack Unit prisoners, arguing that temperatures reach dangerous levels. According to the suit, filed in June 2014, the temperatures “routinely exceed 100 degrees inside inmate housing areas, threatening the health and welfare of all inmates, especially the elderly, sick and disabled.”
The plaintiffs compare Pack Unit cell blocks to ovens and argue that tables are too hot to touch; the lawsuit also blames 20 deaths in Texas prisons since 1998 on heat-related causes. The case remains pending. [See: PLN, Aug. 2014, p.36].
Due to high temperatures at the Pack Unit, prison staff as well as the unit’s orientation handbook advised prisoners to drink plenty of water, and that was one of the first lessons that Converse learned upon his arrival.
Converse was assigned to the Pack Unit in response to a request for better access to family visitation. “I was only too familiar with the area as I knew the 7,000-acre unit sat on land that was once the largest and oldest cotton farm.... [But] never did I expect that soon I would become sick due to drinking water that was contaminated with arsenic.”
Within a few months at the facility his legs and hips began swelling, and he experienced muscle pain. Converse stated that while the medical department seemed reluctant to tell him what the problem was, they eventually ordered some medicine for inflammation. Then a sympathetic nurse pulled him aside and asked if he drank a lot of water.
“When I told her yes, she told me to stop drinking the tap water and buy bottled water. I did just that and after 30 days my pains began to diminish,” he said.
In September 2014, Converse was lucky enough to catch a news story on the local radio station about the TDCJ negotiating with the city of Navasota to connect the Pack Unit to a municipal water supply, due to years of documented contamination in the wells used by the facility.
Ultimately, the city refused to pay to improve the Pack Unit’s water supply. Navasota Public Works Director Gary Johnson reported the city would have to drill another well, possibly incur expensive upgrades, and may have to purchase and even litigate for a certificate from the current water provider.
“We might have to go into the drought contingency plan, stage one or two, and ask our citizens to curtail their water usage so that we can give it to the inmates out there and that just doesn’t sound good to me,” said Johnson. “It is an expensive project with a price tag of over $2 million.”
Council member Peter Canney said the TDCJ’s request was ridiculous, noting that $2 million represented 10% of the city’s budget and the city could not force the state to pay if they refused to do so once the project was complete.
“Being the state, if they decide to walk away from this, realistically speaking, we have no recourse,” Canney said. “We could not sue them as a sovereign entity and have any hope of succeeding.”
Thus, the city council voted unanimously not to approve the water improvement project for the Pack Unit. Converse decided to dig deeper. After reviewing environmental regulations, filing grievances, contacting the EPA and reaching out to an engineering firm, he finally received a copy of water quality reports from 2007-2014. He learned the Pack Unit’s water supply had been contaminated for more than seven years.
Converse also found a 2014 Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) on the public water system for the Pack Unit indicating that levels of arsenic were more than double the maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) deemed safe for consumption – 10 parts per billion (ppb) is the MCL for arsenic, and the CCR had detected 23 ppb. Another report, prepared by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2009, indicated that wells for the Pack Unit had over four times the MCL for arsenic.
The CCR report said the likely source of the contamination was runoff from agriculture, electronic and glass production wastes, as well as erosion of natural deposits. It further noted that “some people who drink water containing arsenic levels in excess of the MCL over many years could experience skin damage or problems with their circulatory system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”
Converse filed another grievance alleging violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act and several EPA rules and guidelines on proper notification of contaminated water.
Assistant Unit Warden Donald Bilnoski responded, saying that alternative drinking water was not necessary and the water report was available on site – although no notification was provided to prisoners and it was not in a place where they could access it. Bilnoski concluded that bottled water was available for purchase through the commissary for those with concerns about the tap water.
Converse filed a step 2 grievance related to his health issues and water contamination at the facility. The regional director agreed that the Pack Unit administration had sufficiently addressed the matter.
Converse was paroled shortly afterwards and has continued to pursue the issue with the EPA regarding the TDCJ’s non-compliance with public notice requirements, as well as health and safety standards, at the Pack Unit.
“Sure I was able to buy bottled water but what about the inmates who did not have money to buy bottled water?” he asked. “Does that mean it’s okay for them to drink contaminated water?”
Several other TDCJ facilities are relatively close to the Pack Unit, and there is a risk that those other units also get their drinking water from arsenic-contaminated wells.
Despite the TDCJ’s failure to secure a safe water supply at the Pack Unit after city officials declined to front the cost of the project, the prison’s namesake is a reminder of unexpected moments of justice against all odds. In 1981, Eroy Brown – a black prisoner who had been convicted of armed robbery and burglary – fought for his life during a confrontation that resulted in the deaths of two white prison officials: warden Wallace Pack, who was drowned, and prison farm manager Billy Max Moore, who was fatally shot with the warden’s pistol. At the time, Pack was trying to throw Brown into a river near the Ellis Unit outside Huntsville, Texas. [See: PLN, April 2012, p.46].
Brown said the warden was planning to kill him to stop him from exposing theft and corruption in the TDCJ. Who would have ever imagined that Brown, who claimed self defense, would be acquitted by three Texas juries on charges of murdering Pack and Moore? After serving 27 years, mostly in the federal prison system as part of a settlement that ensured he would not serve his remaining time in Texas prisons, Eroy Brown was released on parole in 2012.
In Converse’s opinion, “[Warden Pack’s] legacy still lives on, as TDCJ officials are still trying to use water to kill inmates.”
Sources: Navasota Examiner, http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com, Houston Chronicle, www.upi.com, Texas Observer, www.trialsoferoybrown.com
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