Credit: Daniel Fazio

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An independent water-quality assessment conducted in November 2021 at one of Illinois’s largest prisons did not follow federal regulations despite concerns over high levels of contamination.  

Last month, Injustice Watch reported on the acute water crisis at Stateville Correctional Center that left people incarcerated there with filthy tap water. The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) hired an outside company, Andrews Engineering Inc., to conduct an independent test and analyze results from previous samples that showed high levels of lead in the water.

According to a preliminary report released by IDOC, staff members from Andrews Engineering tested the water at Stateville on November 4. They collected samples from 20 locations in nonresidential areas at the facility after flushing the faucets and letting the water run for five minutes. 

That method is apparently not in compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) requirements for testing lead and copper in community water systems like the one at Stateville. The EPA requires a “first-draw” sample, meaning testers should take the first water out of the tap after it has been sitting in pipes for at least six hours. 

“It’s hard to tell from the Andrews Engineering report if there’s a lead problem and how big it is,” said Sam Dorevitch, an environmental and occupational health sciences professor at UIC. “It wasn’t sampled in a way that would allow somebody to evaluate what’s going on with the leaching of lead, and it also doesn’t get to the corrosivity of water.” 

IDOC released a statement on its website that said an initial test conducted by an unnamed company in October that found high levels of contamination in seven locations of the facility involved intensive flushing of the water, which might have increased the chances of detecting lead. Kenneth Liss, president of Andrews Engineering, also stated in the preliminary report that the October testing results from the unnamed company were inconsistent with past data and appeared to be an outlier. 

But according to Dorevitch, intensive flushing typically reduces the chances of finding lead in the water. That’s why EPA regulations suggest using unflushed water that’s been sitting in the pipes overnight to increase the chances of detecting lead in the water. 

According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water Watch index, an official test conducted at Stateville in July 2021 showed elevated levels of lead and copper in the tap water. A spokesperson for the agency referred us to the Illinois Lead and Copper Sample Instructions, which require first-draw samples to test the water and prohibit pre-flushing. 

An IDOC spokesperson sent a statement apparently taken from the department’s website. Andrews Engineering did not respond to the Reader’s request for comment by press time.

In an e-mail to the Reader, Elin Betanzo, a former EPA water engineer who helped expose the Flint, Michigan drinking-water crisis, said water samples must be collected first thing out of the tap when testing for lead and copper. 

“There is no allowance or direction for five minutes of flushing,” Betanzo said. “Since EPA recommends flushing as a strategy for reducing risk of exposure to lead and copper, the five minute flush prior to sampling means these sample results are likely lower than you would find using the compliance sampling protocol.” 

Lead contamination can be harmful to adults, according to the EPA. Adults exposed to lead can suffer from kidney problems and high blood pressure. Vulnerable groups with chronic health problems, like people who are incarcerated, face higher risk when exposed to lead. 

In order to test if the people incarcerated at Stateville were exposed to lead in the water, Dorevitch says it would make sense to take samples from water faucets that people use to drink and cook from. The preliminary report, however, shows that Andrews Engineering did not test faucets in the kitchen or individual cell blocks. 

IDOC’s statement said that the October testing results only showed high levels of lead in nonresidential areas of the facility and that filters were placed in those faucets. The statement added that they provided purified drinking water to all individuals in custody and would conduct additional testing. 

It’s unclear if Andrews Engineering conducted follow-up tests at Stateville on December 8 as they said they would in the preliminary report. 

Contaminated water at Stateville is a problem decades in the making, according to Cassandra Greer-Lee, who became active in the prison abolition efforts after her 42-year-old husband died of complications from COVID-19 while awaiting trial at the Cook County Jail. She has been delivering shipments of water bottles to people inside the Stateville facility with the help of volunteers. 

Greer-Lee first heard about the problem when a person incarcerated at Stateville reached out to her asking if she could help connect them to a public official that could do something about the contaminated water. She said they suspected there was lead in the water causing health problems among the detainees. 

The situation worsened in recent months amid a shortage of water bottles in the prison’s commissary due to supply chain issues and contract disputes, according to Injustice Watch. 

The person incarcerated at Stateville told Greer-Lee that they began receiving shipments of water in 32-ounce bags only three times a week from an undisclosed location. Greer-Lee said she didn’t think that was sanitary water, so she began dropping off water bottle shipments at the facility. 

She said anyone interested in donating 16-ounce water bottles can drop them off at Monument of Faith Church at 2750 West Columbus Avenue. “If they don’t have a ride, I can pick it up,” she added. They are also accepting monetary donations. You can contact her via her Facebook page

“The saddest part about it is that IDOC has a budget of $1.5 billion,” Greer-Lee said. “There’s no reason why anyone should have to pay to feel human and drink fresh water.”