The water at Douglas Prison, which has over 2,000 of Arizona’s prisoners, had a “noticeable petroleum odor and taste” and “was burning [prisoners’] skin after showers and causing diarrhea” in June 2019, Jimmy Jenkins of KJZZ-FM reported.
The problem arose after the facility switched to a different well following a leak that caused a water outage earlier in the month. That outage lasted several days, during which prisoners and staff survived on bottled water and used chemical toilets.
Toxic drinking water in major cities, and jails, like Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, has made headlines in recent years and undermined trust in authorities who assured the public that no problems existed. For marginalized populations like prisoners, the slow reactions and outright denials of officials can extend crises for years and compound other issues.
Residents of the Wallace Pack Unit in Texas, the majority of whom are aged and have health problems, were told to drink up to two gallons of water a day to cope with excessive summer heat, yet a 2017 report revealed the water there contained over four times the level of arsenic allowed by the EPA. A federal judge responded to an emergency motion in 2016 by ordering the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to ship clean water to the unit, but by that point the prisoners had already consumed “thousands of gallons of the arsenic-tainted water for more than ten years.”
Prisoners at Douglas faced a similar lose-lose situation as early-summer temperatures neared 100 degrees. During the initial outage, Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder assured the public that over 20,000 bottles of water had been handed out over a three-day period; however, word came through prisoners’ families that the bottles were primarily distributed to guards. Prisoners were left to drink lukewarm that had been trucked in in large containers.
“Inmates have been cooperative and in good spirits, and without incident,” said Wilder, not commenting on reports from families of the incarcerated about conditions inside the facility.
Margaret White, whose son is serving time at Douglas, said prisoners had not had water available for almost two days after the initial outage. Hundreds of people had to use one chemical toilet that was soon overflowing with sewage.
In an effort to restore water to the facility, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality said that samples from the reserve well had tested negative for coliform bacteria before Douglas was switched over to it. The presence of other contaminants had not been verified prior to the switch, but the brownish color and distinct taste of diesel fuel were clear indications that water from the back-up source was not fit for consumption.
By the time the storage tank had been drained and the water lines flushed, the leaking pipe connected to the original well had been repaired and water to the facility was restored from its usual source. “Since then,” Wilder noted, “water has again been running clear and odor free at all units with no additional issues.”
PLN has reported extensively on the issue of water contamination in prisons and jails and has found that polluted water was one of the top toxicity issues inside prisons.
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