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Potentially Fatal Legionella Bacteria Found at Six Illinois Prisons

by Casey J. Bastian

On June 27, 2022, the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) announced it found Legionella bacteria in the water system at Jacksonville Correctional Center. The discovery of the bacterium — which causes a potentially fatal type of pneumonia known as Legionnaire’s disease — came just months after a March 2022 flare-up in five other state prisons.

DOC and the state Department of Public Health (DPH) did not instill confidence with their handling of the earlier cases. In a joint press release on March 11, 2022, they announced that Legionella bacteria had been detected at two prisons: Stateville Correctional Center (SCC) and Joliet Treatment Center. In response to media inquiries in early April, however, DOC admitted that it knew three other prisons also had contaminated water.

Lab reports dated prior to the press release showed that Legionella was also found at Graham Correctional Center, Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center and Stateville Northern Reception and Classification Center. DOC turned down an opportunity to clarify why the misleading statement was made. DPH failed to respond to requests for comment as well.

“I’m appalled that the [DOC] seems to be more concerned with covering up the problem than with protecting the health of the people in their custody,” said Shari Stone-Mediatore, Managing Director for Parole Illinois, which advocates for a fairer parole process. “Exposure to deadly diseases in their drinking water and showers is not part of people’s prison sentence.”

Alan Mills, Executive Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, called it “an attempt at transparency without really being transparent.”

Legionella bacteria travel from contaminated water and into a person’s lungs generally in two ways: either breathing in droplets during a shower, or from aspiration while attempting to swallow water and it “goes down the wrong pipe.” DOC claimed no prisoners showed symptoms or tested positive for the disease.

However, showers were not tested at any of the prisons. Contaminated showers are a “big concern,” according to Aaron Packman, Director of the Northwestern Center for Water Research. “There’s no way to completely eradicate Legionella and keep it out of the system.”

A prisoner at SCC in 2015, and two more at Pontiac Correctional Center in 2020, contracted Legionnaires disease from contaminated water. SCC prisoners have complained of discolored and foul-tasting water since 2013. Tests in 2020 revealed elevated levels of copper and lead.

“These facilities are old — they’re in horrific disrepair,” said State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago). “We’re now reaping the harvest of deferred maintenance.” 

Sources: The Appeal, Equal Justice Initiative, WICS

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