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McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas
McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas (Photo: Google Maps)

Health hazards are everywhere in prison — even in something as essential as drinking water.

In stories that PJP has received, contributors at some facilities have described drinking water that is brown with white or black specks, smelling like sewage.

At Kern Valley State Prison in California, thousands of people have been forced to drink arsenic-laced water, according to reporting from Truthout. Over the past 20 years, several incarcerated people at Kern Valley have developed bacterial infections like Helicobacter pylori, arsenic poisoning, Legionella and E. coli. These diseases can induce severe pain and discomfort, and are also known to heighten the risk of other illnesses, including cancer, later in life.

While tests have detected bacteria in drinking water, many of the incarcerated people drinking this water are not given sufficient notice of these dangers. According to a story from Source New Mexico, officials at Springer Correctional Center in that state instructed incarcerated women not to drink prison water following the detection of coliform in June, but did not disclose why.

Contaminated water in prisons can come from outdated plumbing and construction methods, like the use of lead in pipes. Prison infrastructure is rarely renovated, and water is seldom tested. Untested showers have also resulted in skin infections among incarcerated people. PJP writer Anthony Ehlers, who is incarcerated in Illinois, wrote about potential lead poisoning in the Stateville Correctional Center for the Chicago Reader in 2022.

During a historically hot summer, when water is even more vital than usual to stay cool and hydrated, PJP has compiled a collection of stories by contributing writers on drinking water behind bars.

Why Prisoners Aren’t Reporting Feeling Sickby Michael J. Moore: “Raul heard others who had been there longer than him complaining about their sinks which still hadn’t begun to produce clear water. He knew he would eventually be forced to drink it, or he would succumb to dehydration and possibly death.” 

We Can Only Watchby Clea Bowden: “Even with the heat reaching nearly 100 degrees, we are not allowed to get filtered water or a sufficient amount of ice. We are told to drink the water from our sink that is connected to our toilets.”

Cervical Cancer (Squamous cell carcinoma) under light microscopy zoom in different areas

She Was in Constant Pain. They Told Her It Was Normalby Lucretia Stone: “The majority of women I have talked to have noticed dark spots appear on their backs, which we think is from showering in contaminated water.”

McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas

Dispatch From a Texas Prisonby Richard Shafer: “There is a problem with excessive amounts of lead, arsenic, and other harmful bacteria in the water supply. I contracted H. pylori while at the Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, Texas.”

Aerial view of Stateville Correctional Center building complex

Learning in the Abysmal Conditions of Illinois’ Stateville Correctionalby Anthony Ehlers: “The water here is poisonous … These are the deplorable conditions we live in.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Elena Townsend-Lerdo is a volunteer editor at Global Forum Online and a student in California. She has been writing about prison journalism since 2017.

India Claudy is a volunteer editor at Global Forum Online and a student in California. She is passionate about inclusive, accessible journalism.