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Prisoners Have No Choice But to Drink Arsenic-Laced Water

by Charles Davis

WASHINGTON - When Kern Valley State Prison opened in 2005, the 379 million dollar facility in Central California was hailed as "state of the art". But within weeks of opening, a major problem was discovered: its water was poisoned - containing roughly twice the federally permitted level of arsenic, a known carcinogen.

And nothing has been done about it.

"They really don't care," says Bertha Nava, the mother of an inmate who has for more than five years been forced to drink the contaminated water at Kern Valley State Prison. He's complained that the water not only tastes bad, but looks it too - "like part urine, part water".

In the nearly six years since the issue was uncovered, the more than 5,000 incarcerated men at Kern Valley State Prison continue to consume water that regularly tests positive for elevated levels of arsenic. Every person in a position of authority - every person in a position to change things for the better - from California lawmakers to prison officials to regulators within the state's Department of Public Health, has failed the prisoners.

The pain Nava feels is evident when she talks about her and other mothers' efforts to secure their children something as basic as drinking water that won't slowly kill them.

"They don't care about the prisoners in there," she says of California officials, from those at the prison to the state legislature, who have let the problem continue for years unabated. "They really, really neglect them," she says. "We're actually treating animals better than we're treating them."

Drinking water laced with arsenic is known to cause a number of serious health problems - health problems for which California taxpayers will someday have to pick up the tab. Indeed, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, long-term exposure can cause "cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidneys, nasal passages, liver and prostate".

"My son is supposed to be released in 13 years," says Nava. "Well, what medical problems is he going to have when he's released? Will he be able to function normally? Or is he going to be released just to die from cancer because of the water?"

Unfortunately for Nava's son and thousands of others like him, those in positions of authority are not in a rush to change things.

"This is not an emergency," proclaims a recent memo issued to inmates by Kern Valley State Prison Warden M.D. Biter. It says inmates "do not need to use an alternative water supply (e.g., bottled water)" - not that they have a choice - but it does note that those who drink the prison's water "may experience skin damage or circulatory system problems, and may have an increased risk to getting cancer [sic]."

While maintaining that the situation is not an emergency, the memo promises it will be resolved.

"Kern Valley State Prison is working with Facilities Planning, Construction and Management to install an Arsenic Treatment System," it states. "We anticipate resolving the problem by October 2011."

But prisoners and their families have heard those promises before. A nearly identical memo, typos and all, was issued Apr. 8, 2008, by then-warden Anthony Hedgpeth. It claimed that prison officials were working "to install an Arsenic Treatment System". And it stated that they "anticipate resolving the problem" - by Jun. 2009.

While officials have been anticipating resolving the problem for years, it seems that - judging by their actions, not their rhetoric - providing incarcerated persons in California safe drinking water just isn't a priority.

The lack of progress comes despite a Dec. 2008 compliance order issued by the California Department of Public Health over Kern Valley State Prison's continued "violation of the arsenic maximum contaminant level". The order instructed prison officials to draw up a plan and time schedule for fixing the problem, threatening "judicial action, including civil penalties", should they not comply.

However, the order did not actually specify a date for when the problem must be resolved. And so it hasn't been.

Ken August, a spokesman for the department, says that despite the ongoing arsenic problem - recent tests show the drinking water continues to far exceed the federally imposed limit - "Kern Valley State Prison has met the terms of its compliance order. No penalties are warranted at this time".

As to when the problem might be resolved, the spokesman says prison officials have informed the department that the water filtration project "should go to bid soon". Actual construction, meanwhile, "should start within six months and take one year for completion".

This schedule, if followed, means a water filtration system could be built as late as Feb. 2012 - a full four months after the Oct. 2011 date quoted by Biter that officials "anticipate resolving the problem".

"It seems like it's not a big issue to them," says Nava. "But I'm sure the warden doesn't drink the water."

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