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Texas: Complaint Filed Over Contaminated Water, Conditions at Eastham Unit

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has become a litmus test for dealing with toxic environmental conditions for prisoners. Earlier this year, prisoners at the Wallace Pack Unit and their advocates on the outside succeeded in obtaining a court order to provide clean water at that facility, which has well-documented high levels of arsenic in its water supply. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.22; Sept. 2015, p.12].

On December 1, 2016, Joan Kain, an advocate acting on behalf of prisoners at the Eastham Unit, delivered a formal complaint to TDCJ officials in an effort to prompt changes at that prison. Her complaint was based primarily on reports from incarcerated activist Keith “Malik” Washington.

In November, Washington and 43 other prisoners were transferred to Eastham, an administrative segregation unit in Lovelady, Texas, following activities surrounding the September 9, 2016 national prisoner work strike that coincided with the 45th anniversary of the 1971 Attica uprising.
Eastham is one of the oldest prisons in the state. Washington reported that “the conditions there are much worse than at the Telford Unit,” where he was previously housed.

Kain noted that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) had posted notices warning local residents of the presence of lead and copper in the water system that services the Eastham Unit.

She also relayed Washington’s reports of the water at Eastham having a “strong sulfur-like smell” and a bad taste, “which leaves behind a gritty residue in the consumer’s mouth.” He said guards had confirmed the water was contaminated and staff did not drink it.

Prison officials provided an alternative water source for TDCJ employees at Eastham but prisoners had no other choice but to drink the contaminated water.

In addition to the water problems, Kain’s complaint related that many of the cells in the Eastham Unit have peeling lead-based paint and black mold, and are infested with roaches – conditions that Washington described as “cruel and unusual.”

The complaint concluded with a request for an immediate investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice as well as the Centers for Disease Control, noting that TCEQ had not exhibited an interest in securing safe water for prisoners at Eastham, as indicated by the agency’s years of inaction with respect to contaminated water at the Wallace Pack Unit.

Kain’s complaint further explained that “The State of Texas through its prison agency (TDCJ) and its Attorney General’s Office has established a governmental policy, custom, and practice of retaliating against prisoners who file grievances,” and asked that federal officials investigate that issue, too.


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