Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Contaminated Water a Longstanding Problem at Nebraska Women’s Prison

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” goes the line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. As Coleridge dramatized, water is essential to life, yet most people take it for granted. For those incarcerated, their access to drinking water is entirely dependent on prison officials. At the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (NCCW), prisoners have long complained about the quality of the water, which contains sediment, has a strong odor and is cloudy. New arrivals are told by other prisoners to avoid drinking it and not to wash their hair too often. Now a lawsuit filed on December 1, 2023, alleges it’s so bad that it violates their civil rights.

State officials are well aware of this problem. As early as 2014, a water sample taken at the prison tested high for copper. Excessive amounts of copper can cause stomach ailments as well as liver and kidney damage. Copper levels were nearly twice as high in the lockup’s nursery. The state Ombudsman’s Office has received over 20 complaints concerning the water at NCCW, and the state Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) has reportedly spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on improvements to the water system. Regardless, prisoners at NCCW continue to report health-related issues blamed on the water, including gastrointestinal ailments, skin rashes, nausea and hair loss.

Tests in 2017 again found high concentrations of copper. “The copper is coming from the plumbing, not the groundwater,” an engineer stated. Prison officials replaced a water tower tank and installed a reverse osmosis filtering system; however, the filtration system does not include water used for the laundry, showers, and sinks in some of the cells. Prison officials rejected replacing the facility’s water pipes or lining them to prevent copper leaching, citing costs and security concerns. Instead, they opted in 2018 to inject chemicals into the water supply, including chlorine, to address pipe corrosion.

It took three years—until March 2021—before the chemical injection system became operational. Initial test results found copper levels even higher than before, though they later decreased. But prisoners have reported water quality problems continue, including discoloration and sediment, plus higher levels of iron and manganese. The latter, ironically, is caused by chlorine reacting with iron pipes. Chlorination also adversely affected the facility’s reverse osmosis system.

Prisoner Christian Henderson has filed around 20 grievances, complaints and requests over water-related issues since 2021, noting that prisoners have to constantly clean the sinks in their cells because they are “stained brown” by the water. Henderson’s requests for bottled water have been rejected. NCCW has spent at least $389,000 on its water system, but problems persist because the underlying issue—corrosion of the lockup’s water pipes—remains unresolved.

The latest suit was filed pro se by prisoner Valeisha Walker, seeking an injunction to force DOCS to fix the problem. Yet a prison spokesperson insisted in response that there were “no unresolved issues” related to water quality at the lockup. NCCW prisoners who have no choice but to drink the cloudy, sink-staining, sediment-laden water would strongly disagree. Walker’s suit remains pending, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Walker v. Folts, USDC (D. Neb.), Case No. 4:23-cv-3234.

The problem is not limited to one prison. A study published in May 2024 in the American Journal of Public Health found that at least 990,000 U.S. prisoners and detainees—including some 12,000 juveniles—are incarcerated in lockups where they risk exposure to “forever chemicals,” a class of industrial byproducts that take decades to break down and may cause significant health problems. See: Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substance Exposure Risks in U.S. Carceral Facilities, 2022, Amer. Journal of Pub. Health (May 2024).


Additional source: Lincoln Journal Star

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Walker v. Folts