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California Prisons Struggle with Environmental Threats from Sewage Spills, Contaminated Water, Airborne Disease

by Rick Anderson

"When I walk into my cell and see a [toilet] bowl full of brown water, I’m reminded of my status in the world; I’m reminded of my value. All the pious talk in the world about rehabilitation doesn’t change this ugly reality.”

That was lifer Kenneth E. Hartman describing what some days are like at the California State Prison LAC in Lancaster, a maximum-security facility about 70 miles north of Los Angeles.

It’s crowded there, and the prison’s operations and sewer system are bearing the effects of more than 3,400 prisoners in a facility built to hold 2,300. Some newcomers bunk in the crowded gymnasium where beds are pushed together dormitory-style in long vertical rows and prisoners, unlike those in cells, have to line up to use the bathroom facilities.

California’s prison population peaked at more than 175,000 in 2006, roughly double the system’s intended capacity. Critics blamed the overcrowding on the state’s hard-line, 1990s policies which, over the years, increasingly saw incarceration and lengthy sentences as the best answers to rising crime: Lock ‘em all up, a majority of legislators believed.

With prisoners sleeping in hallways, gyms and program rooms, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a “prison overcrowding state of emergency.” Among the public hazards, he warned in 2006, was penal wastewater, which was being produced faster than it could be treated – causing backups, overflows and health threats.

“Thousands of gallons of sewage spills and environmental contamination” had already occurred, the governor said. This was a matter of public concern because prison water consumption and complications with the disposal of prison waste were putting the state’s water supply at peril.

Other environmental factors were at work, too. As Prison Legal News reported in 2007, California prisons were among many across the U.S. leaking dangerous effluents, some of which were running off into local rivers and affecting community water supplies. “Because prisons are inherently detested and ignored institutions,” wrote John Dannenberg, “the hidden menace of pollution from them has stayed below the radar.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2007, p.1].

Since 2000, eight California state prisons have been cited for major water pollution problems, including the aging Folsom State Prison, built in 1880, which was fined $700,000 for a massive 700,000-gallon sewage spill into the adjacent American River. Similarly, the California Men’s Colony (CMC) in San Luis Obispo dumped over 220,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Chorro Creek in 2004, resulting in a $600,000 fine, PLN reported. A prison spokesman claimed CMC prisoners had been flushing large objects, such as blankets, down the toilets. [See: PLN, May 2009, p.38].

A comparatively minor spill from San Quentin State Prison in 2008, caused by a failed pump, sent 1,500 gallons of raw sewage pouring into San Francisco Bay. And from February 2012 to January 2013, multiple spills totaling over 8,400 gallons of sewage occurred at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, state records show.

The CMC appears to be the state’s leader in prison sewage spills. Earth Island Journal, in collaboration with, reported in June 2017 on what it called the facility’s “legacy of water pollution dating back nearly two decades, and a history of pollution-related penalties going back to at least 2004.”

The report noted: “Despite upgrades to the prison’s old wastewater treatment plant after the 2004 spill, problems continued. In 2008 state water officials levied another $40,000 fine against CMC for spilling another 20,000 gallons of sewage that resulted in the [Morro Bay] being closed for recreational use and fishing for several days. The prison got into hot water again in 2014, when the EPA levied $373,500 in fines for Clean Water Act violations. And still the pollution persisted: Spills were documented again in 2015 and in January of [2016].”

The 2015 spill at CMC, reportedly caused by a backed-up sewer line, dumped around 85,000 gallons of raw sewage, some of which ended up in the Chorro Creek.

Most recently, according to the California State Water Resources Control Board, an 80,000-gallon sewage spill occurred at the Tehachapi Correctional Institution on February 8, 2016. Fortunately, the Board reported, “no surface water body [was] affected.” The same facility had been cited dozens of times from 2011 to 2015 for water and sewage-related violations, including higher than permitted coliform bacteria and nitrogen levels.

Other Water-related Issues

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has experienced other environmental issues related to prison water supplies. A 2009 story in the Los Angeles Times indicated that prison officials didn’t take their water problems all that seriously. Not long after California opened the Kern Valley State Prison in 2005, testing revealed that drinking water from two wells contained arsenic, a known cause of cancer, in amounts far higher than a federal water safety standard that was just going into effect.

But four years later, after missing the government’s deadline to reduce the arsenic levels, the state had no concrete plans or funding to do so. Prison officials spent $629,000 to design a filtration system then decided not to build it. They also neglected to inform prisoners and prison staff they were consuming contaminated water. [See: PLN, June 2009, p.26].

After warning notices were finally posted in April 2008 on orders from the California Department of Public Health, prisoners continued drinking the water when the facility failed to provide alternatives.

 “We have no choice,” Kern Valley prisoner Larry Tillman told the Times. “We should at the very least receive bottled water, or truck in water from another city.”

Prison employees were allowed to bring bottled water to work, but administrators weren’t about to extend that option to prisoners; they went so far as to create a form letter to reject bottled water requests from some of the 4,800 prisoners at the Kern Valley facility. Prison officials contended that health hazards from arsenic, a chemical used in industry and farming, were insignificant.

“It’s not that major of an issue,” said Kelly Harrington, the prison’s new warden. Still, he promised to have a water filtering system in place “in a few years.”

San Quentin, the state’s oldest prison, was hit with a different water-related problem, Legionnaires Disease, in August 2015. Named for the event at which it was first discovered, the 1976 American Legion convention in Philadelphia, the disease is a severe and potentially fatal form of pneumonia. [See: PLN, Aug. 2007, p.1].

Unsure of the source of the outbreak, the prison shut off its water supply, the most likely culprit. Nearly 90 prisoners showed signs of the disease, which is often spread through inhaling mist or vapor from water contaminated by Legionnaire bacteria. There is no vaccine to treat Legionnaires, and prevention requires proper maintenance of water systems. That clearly hadn’t happened at San Quentin.

Prison officials eventually determined the source of the outbreak was two cooling towers in the health services building, part of the facility’s air-conditioning system. Thirteen prisoners had confirmed cases of Legionnaires but none died; 80 others came down with pneumonia.

The towers were cleaned and their filters replaced. A report on the incident noted, almost sarcastically, “Regular maintenance and upkeep of building sites can mitigate the spread of communicable disease and other adverse health care outcomes.”

Overcrowding a
Contributing Problem

Many of the health hazards in prisons, including environmental problems, are made worse by overcrowding that crams prisoners together in close proximity. Regardless, nothing much came from Governor Schwarzenegger’s 2006 emergency prison overcrowding declaration except plans to add more prison beds.

A study that reviewed the CDCR’s overcrowding crisis, authored by criminology professors Jody Sundt, Emily J. Salisbury and Mark G. Harmon, and published in March 2016, found that as many as 15,000 prisoners slept in double- and triple-bunks in day rooms, program rooms and other areas not intended for housing as the state’s prison population grew.

“The extent of crowding substantially increased the likelihood of violence and made the provision of medical and mental health care nearly impossible,” they said. “Conditions inside the prisons became so harmful, and in fact deadly, that approximately one inmate per week committed suicide and countless more died of preventable causes.”

Their findings – aimed at determining the worthiness of mass prison downsizing – also served to underscore the importance of how overcrowding, pollution and other factors affect prisoners and their environment. Contaminated water, air and ground soil can, under the worst of circumstances, turn prison terms into death sentences.

The study noted that crime rates dropped during the late 1990s as prosecutions and longer sentences rose sharply. “We make a mistake, however, when we assume that prisons are the only meaningful or viable response to crime,” the authors wrote. “Instead, we should ask whether the relative benefits of imprisonment are greater than the broad array of policies available. The answer to that question is becoming increasingly clear: Imprisonment may affect crime, but it does so at a high social, human, and economic cost and is far less cost-effective than alternatives.”

Federal courts saw California’s prison overcrowding – which resulted in grossly deficient medical care – as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and ordered the state to downsize its prison population. The state appealed, but in May 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Plata, affirmed a lower court order to reduce the prison population to at least 137.5 percent of capacity – or by more than 40,000 prisoners. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].

Plata focused in part on a wide class of state prisoners with serious medical conditions. “After this action commenced in 2001, the State conceded that deficiencies in prison medical care violated prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights,” the Supreme Court wrote. “The State stipulated to a remedial injunction. The State failed to comply with that injunction, and in 2005 the court appointed a Receiver to oversee remedial efforts. The court found that ‘the California prison medical care system is broken beyond repair,’ resulting in an ‘unconscionable degree of suffering and death.’ The court found: ‘[I]t is an uncontested fact that, on average, an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days due to constitutional deficiencies in the [California prisons’] medical delivery system....’”

Further, the Supreme Court stated, “In 2008, three years after the District Court’s decision, the Receiver described continuing deficiencies in the health care provided by California prisons: ‘Timely access is not assured. The number of medical personnel has been inadequate, and competence has not been assured.... Adequate housing for the disabled and aged does not exist. The medical facilities, when they exist at all, are in an abysmal state of disrepair. Basic medical equipment is often not available or used. Medications and other treatment options are too often not available when needed.... Indeed, it is a misnomer to call the existing chaos a “medical delivery system” – it is more an act of desperation than a system.’”

California seemed to move swiftly towards compliance with the court order. By 2013, more than 27,500 prisoners had been paroled or moved from prisons to county jails in what state officials called “realignment.” It seemed to be a workable solution; the 2016 study by the three academics mentioned above found the mass release had little to no effect on crime rates and, once the court-ordered prison population cap was reached, had saved $425 million.

The cap was reached quickly, in 2015, when the population had fallen slightly below the court-mandated limit. That was due in large part to the approval of Proposition 47, which changed some low-level crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and provided a way for prisoners to apply for resentencing and early release. [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.42].

The Washington Post called Prop 47 “a grand experiment, an act of mass forgiveness unprecedented in U.S. history.” Formerly a national innovator in draconian policies to get tough on crime, the Post added, California was “now innovating in the opposite direction, adopting laws that have released tens of thousands of inmates and are preventing even more from going to prison in the first place.”

But almost unnoticed today, California’s prison population has started climbing again. As of November 15, 2017 there were over 115,200 prisoners in California’s 32 adult institutions, excluding an additional 10,000 in work camps and contract facilities. Another 4,336 were held in out-of-state, privately-operated prisons.

That puts the in-state prison system at roughly 135.4 percent of capacity and counting, as the captive population creeps back toward the court-mandated cap. Some facilities are worse off than others. According to CDCR prisoner counts, the Valley State Prison in Chowchilla is the most overcrowded. Originally a women’s facility built to house 1,980 prisoners, today it holds over 3,560 male prisoners – almost 180 percent capacity.

Three other CDCR facilities – Northern Kern State Prison in Delano, the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran and Wasco State Prison near Bakersfield – are running from 164 to 169 percent capacity. Among the almost three dozen prisons and camps that make up California’s corrections system, just two are at or under their design capacity.

The notorious Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City – which Mother Jones magazine picked as one of the nation’s ten worst correctional facilities due to riots and sexual abuse – is at just 105% capacity with 2,500 prisoners. The state’s least crowded is the newly-opened California Health Care Facility, which holds 2,329 prisoners – 320 below design capacity.

The California State Prison in Lancaster, where Kenneth Hartman lives, is at just under 150 percent capacity – with 3,410 men living in space intended for 2,300. While not as crowded as some facilities it’s far from ideal, according to Hartman, who writes frequently about prison conditions for outside publications. Actually, his unit is one of the most congested at the facility, running above 180 percent capacity.

In an opinion piece he wrote for, Hartman said he is housed with more than 185 prisoners in a building designed for 100, “and all of these men need to use the toilet facilities multiple times a day. [Such usage is] probably the most overlooked yet most consequential byproduct of prison overcrowding, and because California remains wedded to a purely punitive approach to corrections, the overcrowding continues unabated at this prison.”

There’s water, water everywhere, he said – much of it brown. Several years ago, flush restrictors were installed on prison toilets, limiting the number of flushes to two during any five-minute period.

“When they were first installed, we were assured custody and medical staff would be able to turn them off in cases of diarrhea and other difficulties that required more flushes than the baseline number. This assurance proved to be false. In a cell occupied by two men, both of whom are only feet from the toilet, the restrictors translate to full [toilet] bowls and potential conflicts.... Even for those not familiar with life in a six-by-ten-foot concrete box, it can’t be hard to imagine scenarios where a man accidentally tries to empty a stinking bowl too fast, trying to mollify an angry cellmate.”

The flow restrictors were followed by the installation of low-flow diaphragms. “Without going too far down the pipes with details, real low-flow toilets have a different design that allows for an effective evacuation of the bowl with less water,” Hartman stated. “In here, however, we have a jury-rigged, add-on system that simply provides less water to a toilet designed for more water. This means less water for fewer flushes, and that equals more problems. More problems with incomplete flushes, inadequate times to flush and tensions between men crammed into too small a space.”

Then came the Golden State drought, and the governor’s order for state agencies to cut water use by 20 percent. For most departments that meant letting lawns turn to straw or simply not serving a glass of water in the cafeteria unless asked for – rational enough responses, Hartman noted.

But in the prison system, “the response was to cut back on showers, to remove showering facilities from the exercise yards, and to install the aforementioned toilet-altering gadgets, all of which greatly, and negatively, impacted the lives of prisoners. A response that was, frankly, irrational,” he said in his op-ed. “There’s still more to this irrational response. Because the pipes were designed for a greater amount of water, the incidences of clogging are increasing, the stench of backed-up sewers is a much more common occurrence, and the amount of overtime the institutional plumbers are working has exploded. It’s a perfect storm of bad consequences directly linked to the gross reliance on incarceration in this state.”

Hartman added the governor’s mandated water reductions could have been met by reducing the prison population, but of course that option wasn’t considered.

“While the problems of toilet restrictions and shower access seem minor in the grand scheme of things, they are emblematic of far bigger systemic problems. Prisons are inherently violent and abusive, and their overcrowding inevitably leads to violations of basic human rights. Access to water and sanitation facilities, access to quality health care, and the ability to live a safe life are directly and inversely linked to the crowding of the prisons – and to imprisonment more generally,” he wrote.

Saving water is a worthy cause in California, Hartman concluded, but “[c]ontinuing to waste human lives in prisons and subjecting the most vulnerable to unhealthy policies are not appropriate actions.”

Deaths Due to Air-borne Disease

What’s the toll from the overcrowding and related ecological consequences in California’s prison system? No one has calculated any precise figures, which are difficult to determine.

Beyond sewage spills and contaminated water, though, another environmental factor has resulted in the deaths of at least 50 California prisoners in recent years, in the form of air-borne Valley Fever spores. The disease affects both people living near correctional facilities in certain areas as well as prisoners. [See: PLN, June 2015, p.46; July 2013, p.28; June 2008, p.22].

Including Ken Hartman – yes, the same Ken Hartman.

In 2008, almost three decades into his life sentence, Hartman contracted Valley Fever by inhaling spores from the soil-dwelling fungus. It starts out like the flu, then gets much worse.

“The intensity or severity [of my symptoms] kept increasing to the point that I clearly remember thinking, If I get any sicker, I’m going to die,” Hartman said in a letter to the Earth Island Journal. “My physical strength was near to zero ... I had a persistent dry cough, severe night sweats, and bouts of vertigo that rendered me practically immobile.”

He lived to tell about it, however, as do most victims – both prisoners and non-prisoners. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that 111,717 cases of coccidioidomycosis, or cocci, as the disease is also known, were reported by 28 states and the District of Columbia from 1998 through 2011, the latest figures available. The “silent epidemic,” as the CDC calls it, is widespread in the Southwest and has no vaccine cure. Sixty-six percent of the 1998-2011 cases came from Arizona and 31 percent from California. Symptomatic patients typically experience an influenza-like illness after inhaling the unseen fungus spores.

Current statistics are hard to come by, but the CDC reports 3,089 deaths in which coccidioidomycosis was recorded as a primary or contributing cause occurred from 1990 to 2008, averaging under 200 annually in the U.S.

Studies indicate that the spores become airborne when soil is disturbed from construction, farming or severe weather.

California state prisons, particularly those located in or near agricultural areas, have long been at risk for Valley Fever infections. That became most apparent four years ago when a decade’s worth of outbreaks at Pleasant Valley State Prison and Avenal State Prison, both in the San Joaquin Valley, were found to have resulted in numerous deaths.

More than three dozen prisoners, a review showed, had died from the disease. Altogether, based on attorney statements and court filings, at least 50 state prisoners throughout the CDCR succumbed to Valley Fever within the last decade.

The CDC launched an investigation into causes behind the deaths and the state began moving the first of 2,000 particularly vulnerable prisoners to other facilities. (The risk of infection is 175 times greater for Filipinos and 10 times greater for blacks than non-Hispanic whites, according to Prisoners with HIV and diabetes are particularly at risk, as are older males – more than a third of Valley Fever deaths occur among the 65-84 age group.)

CDC experts estimated only about 13 percent of prisoners were immune to the disease. They also predicted that up to five percent of the prisoners housed at facilities in the San Joaquin Valley would be infected annually if the state didn’t take preventive measures.

The California Department of Public Health could not say how many Valley Fever-related deaths have occurred in state prisons, but did report that 1,098 Californians had died of the disease from 2000 to 2013. Additionally, the state infection rate has been climbing, from 8 people per 100,000 in 2015 to almost 14 per 100,000 in 2016.

California prisons now spend $23 million on the care and treatment of prisoners infected with Valley Fever annually, and millions more in court as lawsuits have increased. In one case, 58 Pleasant Valley and Avenal prisoners are suing the state for failing to prevent their infections; they claim the state knew they were at risk but didn’t take necessary steps to protect them, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Those who survive Valley Fever face a “lifelong, crippling and sometimes fatal disease in addition to their lawfully determined sentences,” the lawsuit claims; it is seeking punitive and compensatory damages, including $5,000 annually for each prisoner’s medication, $1,000 a year for tests and $25,000 in hospital costs for those most severely infected.

“I’ve always been waiting for a journalist to cover this story,” Ian Wallach, a Los Angeles attorney, told PLN. He’s among those representing prisoners with Valley Fever. And he’s frustrated.

Though Avenal and Pleasant Valley prisoners were relocated, the federal government didn’t do the same for prisoners at a privately-run federal prison in Taft, another high-risk area for Valley Fever.

In a recent ruling, “the U.S. 9th Circuit appeals court decided that federal inmates can sue the USA under the Federal Tort Claims Act. This is good,” Wallach said. [See: PLN, April 2017, p.32]. But a separate ruling was bad, “because the State Tort Claim pre-filing requirements are so onerous that, although thousands have been infected, only one prisoner has so far completed the filing process.”

As a result, he noted, “inmates are still getting sick. And being deported sick. And dying.” 

 The Taft Correctional Institution is a pre-deportation facility, Wallach points out, “so lots of the infected are deported and likely dead.” People of African or Filipino descent are far more likely than Caucasians to develop the severest form of Valley Fever, he noted. “If this were flipped,” and whites were the high-risk group, “there would, in all likelihood, be a much more pro-active response” by public officials.

“This problem is not going away,” Wallach added. “But if California and the federal government are going to knowingly expose large numbers of black people to a potentially-fatal disease that will require lifelong treatment, and multiple surgeries, those governments should find a way to care for them after it gets them infected. This is being done in the name of the public, and, hopefully, we are better than that.” 

Los Angeles attorney Jason Feldman, who has worked with Wallach on the Valley Fever cases, seconded that assessment. “What always bothered me most,” he told PLN, “was the fact that the CDCR and the State of California knew about this disease and this health risk for a long time but did virtually nothing to protect the prisoners.

“And then when scores of prisoners inevitably got sick, responsibility was not taken. And, African American inmates were infected with the most serious form of the disease at a rate seven times greater than their fellow Caucasian inmates.

“My former law partner [Wallach] and I were the first to successfully bring a California prisoner Valley Fever case, in 2011-2012. It was a federal inmate and the case was settled. After the settlement became public, we were inundated with correspondences from state prisoners wanting similar help at the rate of about six letters a week for about a year. Each one detailed a heartbreaking story of being infected with Valley Fever while incarcerated.”

In the settled case, a former Taft prisoner sued prison officials for “recklessly” exposing him to the disease. The federal government agreed to pay him $425,000 in August 2012. [See: PLN, June 2015, p.46].

Mother Jones catalogued some of the other lawsuits: In 2008, a 26-year-old prisoner told a nurse that he’d lost 10 pounds in the past month and suffered from chest pain and a constant cough.

“He was referred to a physician, but no appointment was made for him. Two weeks later, he submitted a request for care, writing, ‘Emergency. I would like to see the doctor ASAP.’ There was no record of a response from the clinic. Ten days later, he was 20 pounds lighter,” the magazinereported. “After he was finally sent to a local hospital, doctors confirmed he had advanced cocci, but the infection had progressed too far to treat. The man died of renal and respiratory failure 10 days later.”

In 2009, prison health care providers failed to evaluate two prisoners; one had lost 56 pounds and suffered from consistent fever, cough and chest pain. “One had not been prescribed anti-fungal medication for two months,” according to Mother Jones. “They both died soon after.”

University of Arizona professor Dr. John Galgiani later wrote in a review that prison medical staff were slow to recognize signs of Valley Fever, particularly among black prisoners. “As a result,” he wrote, “needless suffering and death were inflicted on these men.”

Feldman said that when a federal court appointed a monitor in 2013 to oversee the state’s handling of Valley Fever cases, “it felt like the lid was blown off this issue and a road map was given to litigate if the CDCR continued to take no action.”

However, he added the CDCR “did not properly address the problem,” as it failed to ensure both prisoners and prison staff were protected from the disease. Feldman noted that two guards had died from Valley Fever, too. While the most vulnerable prisoners were transferred to other facilities due to the litigation, he believed more should have been done: “We filed a series of lawsuits and more lawyers jumped into the fray, but it has been a long road ... one that continues.”

In a statement, corrections officials said: “CDCR has been working to mitigate Valley Fever for years. We have put in place numerous measures in our prisons to reduce the amount of dust, and the movement of dust, particularly into buildings.... We have also worked with state and federal public health partners to study further methods of reducing the incidence of Valley Fever in Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons and mitigation efforts continue. To date, more than 2,100 inmates have been moved from the two prisons.”

At least seven lawsuits challenging the CDCR’s response to Valley Fever outbreaks at prisons in the San Joaquin Valley remain pending, while the thousands of prisoners still housed at those facilities remain at risk of infection.

Kenneth Hartman, quoted in the Earth Island Journal, summed up the difficulties that prisoners face with respect to dangerous environmental issues.

“The problem is the intersection of environmental justice and mass incarceration runs right into the teeth of prisoners not being considered worthy of justice,” he said. “If we complain about dirty water, or poor ventilation systems, or inadequate medical care, there is a collective societal shrug: You should have thought about that before you committed crime.

“The only real solution to these problems requires two things that aren’t going to happen any time soon,” he added. “(1) Serious oversight of the prisons by independent folks with real power to hold officials accountable for outcomes, and (2) our society acknowledging that prisoners are fellow human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and compassion based solely on our humanity.” 

Sources: Associated Press, www.semantics­, Washington Post, Mother Jones,, Earth Island Journal, Orange County Register, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Times,,,,,,, documents obtained from PLN public records requests


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