Three years into his stay at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano (California), Silus Valson sought medical treatment for severe headaches, stomach pain, vomiting, and dark urine. The next day, he was transferred to the local hospital’s intensive care unit for impaired heart function.
He believes that his medical problems are the result of drinking water with high levels arsenic at KVSP in 2009 and 2012. “Drinking that water, it wears down your body, and we’ve been drinking it for years,” Valson says.
He claims that prison officials failed to inform incarcerated persons about the water contamination. “The real issue is that they had enough information to tell us that the water source wasn’t safe, but they didn’t give us an alternate water source. They knew that over time this was going to be a health issue,” Valson told Truthout.
Valson was diagnosed with cancer one year prior to his 2012 trip in the ICU. H-Pylori, a bacterial disease that can be passed from one person to another or through drinking water. After prescribing medication to treat the infection, prison medical staff sent him back. A few months later, a nurse wrote in his medical file that he had developed Mees’ lines — a telltale sign of arsenic poisoning — on his finger and toe nails. According to court documents, following his ICU stay and return to KVSP, Valson’s skin began to fall off.
“They notified us about it. They did nothing while they said they were trying to fix the water system,” Valson says. Even though his exposure was almost a decade ago Valson still feels the effects of the KVSP Water every day. He has been given medication for his circulatory system and heart problems that he will continue to take.
In an unprecedented move, at least 18 people incarcerated at KVSP also risked retaliation and independently filed lawsuits over what they say was blatant intent to cause harm: The prison’s continued use of unsafe drinking water. Despite numerous water quality violations at both the state and county levels, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation(CDCR) delayed remediation and failed to provide alternative sources of drinking water. This seemingly forced thousands of people to drink arsenic-laced waters for six years or longer.
When contacted by TruthoutCDCR declined to comment on these basic claims. They claimed that they had met all federal and state drinking-water regulations and that KVSP has conducted water testing in order to ensure safety for its incarcerated population.
CDCR Information Officer Joe Orlando told Truthout:
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), prior to activating Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP), in 2005, identified that water from KVSP’s wells would need additional treatment to meet new federal and state drinking-water quality standards. The department developed an Arsenic Removal Water treatment system project to meet the future and current needs of KVSP. KVSP Arsenic water treatment plant was built in 2010 and became operational in March 2012.
CDCR complied fully with all requirements of both the federal EPA (and the state Department of Public Health) in the interim. The arsenic plants were completed and compliance was achieved with federal and state standards. KVSP regularly monitors and tests the water to ensure its safety.
Meanwhile, directly contradicting the findings regarding water quality violations discussed in this article, Orlando of the CDCR said: “Since the beginning of operations, there have been no violations.”
“The Only Access to Water I Had Was Poison”
The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) required that CDCR staff post flyers around KVSP prison in 2008 in order to inform incarcerated KVSP residents that their water levels were higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) maximum limit. The flyers indicated that consuming water with such elevated arsenic levels can cause “skin damage or circulatory system problems” and may lead to an increased risk of cancer. The flyers were updated each quarter and republished. As the timeline for the arsenic treatment plant construction was delayed from 2009 to 2010, the timeline was pushed back to 2009. eventual construction in December 2012.
“It was kind of horrible with signs all over that said there was arsenic in the water,” recalled Lamar Singleton, another individual who was incarcerated at KVSP during the period of high arsenic levels. Singleton lost 50 lbs in just 90 days after arriving at KVSP in 2010 as a chronic patient with many comorbidities. “They did a body scan [MRI]Because I had lost so much weight. They found that I had tumors on both kidneys, and I started getting treated for it.” Although the ultrasound and MRI confirmed that there were tumors on both of his kidneys, doctors conducted a biopsy of only his left kidney and found that the tumor was not malignant.
“One of the main reasons I filed the lawsuit was to try to save my life,” Singleton said, pointing to the prison doctors’ failure to examine his other kidney. Two years later, when doctors finally examined his right kidney, a doctor advised Singleton it was too late and that he should have the kidney removed immediately. Singleton was concerned that the arsenic in his water would worsen his condition. He requested to be transferred to California State Prison, Los Angeles County. “It was really horrible being sick, and the only access to water I had was poison,” he said.
Singleton continued to file legal appels to argue that the arsenic levels constituted cruel and unusual punishments for all KVSP prisoners. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), passed by Congress in 1996, created substantial barriers for prisoner lawsuits in the federal court system, which requires that prisoners first go through their prison’s grievance process, an often lengthy and frustrating ordeal. Despite the PLRA’s hurdles, Singleton, Valson and 16 other prisoners filed lawsuits to attempt to remedy the drinking water quality at KVSP.
John W. Williams arrived at KVSP in August 2009 and reported that he “suffered retch, nausea, stomach cramps, pain and headache.” He described KVSP’s water as sometimes coming out of the tap brown, and other times having a “white powdery substance” in it. Consistently, though, “It tasted weird. Like it had salt or chemical residue in it.”
Williams filed multiple grievances through the prison’s official process about the water, which ultimately led to retaliation from the warden: He was dismissed from his job assignment without explanation.
Despite Williams’s complaints about the water, “[Prison staff] didn’t care because they didn’t have to drink it.” Williams said that the staff showed “no actual concern, no type of change, or no type of assessment.” All four incarcerated people interviewed said that KVSP correctional officers and staff exclusively drank bottled water.
Williams decided to take matters into his hands and sued Warden Kelly Harrington of KVSP. He held onto documents they sent him about the arsenic levels at KVSP for years and mailed them to different federal agencies asking for help remediating the water quality, but he didn’t hear back. “When you’re in a helpless situation and something is just so wrong, and you bring that wrong to the attention of the caregivers — the people that you’re under their custody and care — and they don’t respond or react in a way that they should. The only avenue left is to try to seek relief from a court,” Williams said. “So I had to do something like that to not feel like such a victim.”
With no other options, Williams tried to drink as little water as possible, but, “After so long, I had to drink the water. It was stressful because the water tasted so bad. You fill up a cup and you know something is wrong.”
“We did request to have bottled water and we were denied,” said Antoine Slaughter, who also filed a number of grievances at KVSP. Prisoners who requested bottled waters were sent a form letter, signed by the warden, denying their request. “Drinking it tasted horrible,” he said, “All the prisoners felt the same way. We would only take small sips of the water. We wouldn’t drink a lot of water.”
After showering in the prison’s water, Slaughter broke out in full body rashes, something that he had never experienced before arriving at KVSP. The nurses at the infirmary suggested he apply his skin and avoid going outside. He began to vomit blood on May 20, 2013. Soon thereafter, he started experiencing headaches, nausea, and chest pain. Although nurses took note of his symptoms, they were unable to offer any assistance. Now at a different California prison, Slaughter says he still can’t finish a whole bowl of ramen without feeling ill. Slaughter worries about the noodles’ water.
Not everyone who contended with KVSP’s arsenic-laced water survived. Kevin P. O’Connell filed a lawsuit in 2011 alleging that the arsenic levels in the water worsened his symptoms from hepatitis C. Medical studies have proven the link between worsening effects of hepatitis C and arsenic exposure. His former lawyer confirmed that O’Connell died shortly after his release from prison2013.
The CDCR summoned only Richard Geller (a Madera, California, emergency physician) to court to review each case’s medical conditions. Geller’s testimony went unquestioned, but Craig Steinmaus, one of the world’s experts in arsenic exposure through drinking water, doubts Geller’s definitive stance. Steinmaus told Truthout According to him, the medical effects caused by arsenic depend on the physical examination of each individual, as well the years of exposure, average daily water intake, and preexisting conditions. It is difficult to get such information, especially after the fact.
KVSP Water Treatment Funds Allocatated, But Not Used
The EPA’s Safe Water Drinking Information System shows that from 2008 to 2012, KVSP’s water had arsenic levels consistently around 20 micrograms per liter, twice the EPA limit of 10 micrograms.
KVSP and the CDCR were both aware of the situation. KVSP was established in 2005, a year after KVSP was constructed. In 2005, the CDCR applied to a reauthorization. permitTo build an arsenic-treatment plant. Because of the new terrain of regulatory standards for arsenic in drinking water and remediation criteria, KVSP’s arsenic treatment plant was one of the first proposed in the state of California. In 2006, the CDCR was awarded $2.5 million as part of the CDCR’s 2006 budget. California Assembly Bill 1801Construction of the plant was supposed to begin in earnest, but it didn’t. Instead of transferring its population to a functioning water treatment system, they decided to transfer it. The CDCRContinuing to hold between 3000 and 5,000 prisoners KVSPSince 2005, the capacity was well over the 2448, when it was opened.
The CDPH, which at the time housed the Division of Drinking Water, issued a compliance notice to the KVSP water systems for high arsenic levels on December 12, 2008. The order required KVSP officials that they post flyers to inform prisoners about their drinking of arsenic-contaminated water. These flyers were posted every quarter until 2012, when the plant construction began.
Even after the arsenic treatment plant’s construction, the prison continued to receive violations and compliance orders from the State Water Resources Control Board concerning its treatment facilities. Tricia Wathen, chief, Central California Section of State Water Resources Control Board oversaw most aspects of the project. violationsKVSP with compliance orders. She also signed the 2013 violation citation for failing water samples to be submitted for arsenic testing. This is an extremely rare type. Water samples were not collected or sent to a laboratory to test the arsenic water system from May to July 2013.
Eli McFarland was the water control engineer for State Water Resources Control Board. He said that there was no approved operation plan for the KVSP facility. “Ideally, a water system will receive a permit to operate only after it develops a detailed operations plan,” he said. McFarland explained that KVSP was likely to be allowed to open the arsenic plant because it had a need for a dependent population without an alternative water source. This is often the case with schools and nursing homes. The CDCR was again free to decide without an operation plan, and without a process to ensure clean drinking water for the aforementioned vulnerable populations.
Drinking Water – Arsenic
Although arsenic has been known to be a poison when taken in large quantities, it also poses serious health hazards when taken in lower amounts over long exposure periods. After years of advocacy by physicians and environmental health experts, the EPA lowered the maximum contaminant limit to 10 micrograms per liter (half the amount that was present in KVSP’s water) in 2001, which went into effect in California in November 2008. Exposure to inorganic arsenic can have many effects. It has been linked with increased incidence of cancer. risk of cancerof the bladder, lungs skin, kidneys, liver, prostate, nasal passages, liver, and bladder. Also, long-term exposure at lower levels of arsenicIt can cause skin lesions, rashes and warts, complications of gastrointestinal tract, decreased red and white blood cell production, abnormal heart rhythm, damaged blood vessels, and impaired nerve function.
Since the 1980s, environmental justice groups across the country have repeatedly demonstrated that contaminated drinking water is often due to toxins that have accumulated over many years from unregulated industrial activities. This most often affects people of color and low income communities.
While environmental justice investigations into prison drinking waters are relatively recent, they are still being conducted. activists journalistsWe have seen cases of extreme neglect in prison water quality all over the country. TruthoutIn 2016, the issue was tackled and a series of investigative investigations in partnership with the FBI was launched. Earth Island JournalExamining the intersection of mass incarceration with environmental justice, and detailing cases where arsenic- or lead-contaminated drinking water in Texas prisons and elsewhere in the country, Since then, the United States has supported a 2020 study on arsenic levels in public water systems. Truthout’s findings, showing that incarcerated people are at disproportionate riskfor drinking water that contains arsenic.
The current push by prison abolitionist groups to close 10 prisons before 2025 is evident. KVSP is a prime target for closure. The CDCR is still not accountable to the thousands of people forced by KVSP to drink arsenic-laced drinking water. However, those who have been affected by the medical conditions they developed in California prisons will not let the department go unpunished.
This article was based on a research project with Elsa Calderon.