Credit: Engyin Akyurt, Unsplash

As Chicago lays the groundwork for a new casino, people imprisoned in Illinois gamble with their health every time they take a drink of water. When most people think of places with poor drinking water, images of poor and underdeveloped countries spring to mind. That’s why the tragedy of Flint, Michigan, was so shocking: people wondered how that could happen in the United States. But it’s not uncommon—last year the Guardian reported that some 25 million Americans drink from contaminated water supplies. Some of those people are here at Stateville Correctional Center.

The water at Stateville has a long history of contaminants. “I’ve been hearing about contaminated water for years from prisoners,” Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, told The Appeal in March. Mills also noted that prisoners have complained that the water is often brown, sometimes smells like sewage, and has black flecks in it. Stateville was built in the 1920s, and its infrastructure—including the plumbing—is crumbling. Prisoners are worried that its pipes contain lead, and the corrosion from these pipes is the reason for the brown water. The prisoners’ complaints of discolored and strange-tasting water have been on record with the Uptown People’s Law Center since 2013.

This past spring, IDOC and the Illinois Department of Public Health announced that Legionella bacteria was detected at Stateville. It was later revealed that water in five other prisons had also tested positive for the bacteria. Shari Stone-Mediatore, managing director of Parole Illinois, told The Appeal in April that she was “appalled that the IDOC seems to be more concerned with covering up the problem than with protecting the health of the people in their custody.”

On March 5, Legionella bacteria was found right here in C-House, where I currently live. Inspectors found it in one empty cell. They did not test in any of the inhabited cells, nor did they test the showers, a known breeding ground for Legionella. Aaron Packman, director of the Northwestern Center for Water Research, told The Appeal that contaminated showers are “a big concern.” The showers were not tested here, or at any of the other prisons.

Janet E. Stout, a microbiologist at the University of Pittsburgh and the president and director of the Special Pathogens Laboratory, which specializes in Legionella detection and control, told The Appeal that inspectors need to test multiple locations at a site to understand the full scale of the bacteria’s spread. Water testing at Stateville is haphazard at best. In January, the Reader reported that the company responsible for lead testing on Stateville’s water did not follow federal guidelines.

It wasn’t until March 11 that they finally told the prison population they found Legionella in our drinking water. This is how the IDOC cares for those of us in prison. They claimed to have flushed the system several times; however, Legionella bacteria grows in shower heads and faucets, and in stagnant water, like wells from our very source. They began to pass out bottled water every day, yet the water is not purified like IDOC claims, but comes from a facility also found to have had Legionella there as well. They only allow two 20-ounce bottles per person. This is not enough. The IDOC is not providing enough water for the basic needs of its roughly 2,200 men inside Stateville.

In the 1990s through the mid-2000s, the water at Stateville contained high levels of lithium, and more than twice the level of radium permitted by federal guidelines. In 2000, the EPA found the prison was violating federal limits for radium in the water; in 2003, it found Stateville had achieved compliance with those limits. But it wasn’t until the late 2000s that the prison changed water sources to our current well.

The IDOC and the prison administration have long known of the health risks associated with the drinking water here. Several years ago, an internal memo revealed that IDOC advised all staff not to drink the water here at Stateville, and provided employees with bottled water. The prisoners were never told of the health risks in consuming the water, and so were unable to protect themselves, nor were the prisoners provided with bottled water. For years IDOC knew the water was bad, and of the associated health risks, and kept silent.

Legionella bacteria is only one in a long list of problems facing prisoners and their drinking water. Prisons in Illinois have a long history of providing contaminated drinking water to prisoners. This particular issue is not a new one. One person at Stateville was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease in 2015, and in 2020 two prisoners in Pontiac Correctional Center contracted it. While it is treatable, one out of every ten people who get sick with Legionnaires’ disease will die. It is especially deadly to people over 50, current or former smokers, and those with underlying illnesses. It is truly a crapshoot every time we drink the water.

Local activists have been calling for greater oversight of the state’s prisons by calling for the Illinois Department of Public Health to create a task force for monitoring and investigating contaminated water in prison. Jennifer Vollen-Katz, the executive director of the John Howard Association, told Injustice Watch that more oversight “is critical to improving the sanitation, hygiene, and safety issues that are rife within Illinois facilities.” IDOC cannot be trusted to either conduct the testing, or reveal the results. The oversight must come from an outside agency.

How can people in prison feel like they can be a productive member of society when they don’t even feel human? Dogs in animal shelters are given clean water and good food full of all the vitamins and nutrients to ensure they are healthy. IDOC feeds us a diet below nutritional standards, and food that is old, stale, and sometimes rotten. Dogs at a shelter get walked every day. We get to go outside twice a week—and only if enough staff show up for them to run the yard. If dogs were given contaminated and potentially deadly water, protesters would line the streets. We are given contaminated and potentially deadly water every day and the state does not care. Our water is not only bad for our physical health, but for our mental health as well. The people here know that they’re valued less than a dog.

Fresh, reliable drinking water is a basic human right—one that most people take for granted. Every day we drink the water from our faucets without a second thought.

Imagine how it feels to gamble with your health and your life every time you’re thirsty. No one should have to worry about dying from their drinking water. The real casino is right here in IDOC. We gamble every day.

Anthony Ehlers is a writer incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center. Find out more about incarcerated journalists via the Prison Journalism Project.

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