Toxic Water in California Prisons: Sickening Inmates and Costing Taxpayers Millions

By RYAN SABALOW, DALE KASLER, AND WES VENTEICHER, The Sacramento Bee

An inmate’s death in Stockton from Legionnaires’ disease marks the third time in four years the rare form of pneumonia has struck California’s state prisons – and has laid bare a history of contamination and other problems plaguing water supplies in the corrections system.

Incidents of tainted water have spawned inmate lawsuits, expensive repairs, hefty bills for bottled water and fines, putting a multimillion-dollar burden on the taxpayer-funded corrections system, according to documents and court records reviewed by McClatchy.

Now the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees a network of 76 prisons, youth lockups and inmate firefighter camps, is dealing with a death. The fatality in early March at the California Health Care Facility, a prison hospital in Stockton, follows a Legionnaires’ case earlier this year at a prison hospital in Vacaville – which went unpublicized until now – and a major outbreak that sickened 16 inmates and employees at San Quentin in 2015.

“The state should have, after San Quentin, come up with a plan to make sure this didn’t happen again,” said Tim Keane, a national consultant on Legionnaires’ from Pennsylvania.

The Stockton Legionnaires’ outbreak remains a significant problem almost two months later. The water-borne Legionnaires’ bacteria sickened a second inmate at the same prison and spread to two neighboring youth correctional lockups. Officials have been forced to bring in truckloads of bottled water and impose tight restrictions that extended even to toilet flushing.

“Toilets may be flushed but stand away from the bowl when flushing,” the superintendent of the two youth facilities wrote in an internal memo in mid-April. “Avoid splashing when using sink faucets to wash hands.”

 
The Northern California Youth Correctional Center in Stockton is one of two youth facilities adjacent to the California Health Care Facility. A patient at the CHCF died from Legionnaires’ disease in 2018, and the inmates at the facility and two nearby youth correctional centers remain on bottled water while the water system is treated. HECTOR AMEZCUAHAMEZCUA@SACBEE.COM

The Northern California Youth Correctional Center in Stockton is one of two youth facilities adjacent to the California Health Care Facility. A patient at the CHCF died from Legionnaires’ disease in 2018, and the inmates at the facility and two nearby youth correctional centers remain on bottled water while the water system is treated. HECTOR AMEZCUAHAMEZCUA@SACBEE.COM

 

Corrections officials say they’re working quickly to address the problem.

“Resolution of the situation in our Stockton facilities regarding Legionella is a top priority for CDCR,” spokeswoman Vicky Waters said in an email, referring to the name of the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease.

“The department is working hard to ensure the safety of inmates, wards, visitors and staff as we move forward ... We always strive to ensure there is safe water for our inmates, staff, visitors, and volunteers.“

Critics say it’s well known that the drinking water in state prisons is substandard. A prison employee and three attorneys who represent inmates said guards, staff and inmate lawyers generally are advised not to drink the water in state prisons.

“You don’t drink the water ... You just don’t,” said Kenneth Rosenfeld, a Sacramento attorney who has visited prisons for two decades for his job.

Inmates say they have no choice.

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