On April 5, 2012, three years into his stay at Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP) in Delano, California, Silus Valson sought medical attention for severe headache, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting and dark urine. The next day, he was transferred to the local hospital’s intensive care unit for impaired heart function.
He suspects his medical issues resulted from drinking water with high arsenic levels at KVSP between 2009 and 2012. “Drinking that water, it wears down your body, and we’ve been drinking it for years,” Valson says.
He says that prison officials informed incarcerated people about the water contamination but failed to act. “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.
A year before his 2012 trip to the ICU, Valson was diagnosed with H-Pylori, a bacterial infection that can be passed from person to person or through drinking water. Prison medical staff sent him back to the general population after prescribing medication for the infection. 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. Although his exposure occurred almost a decade ago, Valson says he feels the effects of the KVSP water every day. He has been prescribed medication for his heart and circulatory system indefinitely.
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 receiving multiple state- and county-level water quality violations, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) delayed remediation and did not provide alternate sources of water, seemingly forcing thousands of people to consume arsenic-laced water for six or more years.
When contacted by Truthout for comment, the CDCR rejected these basic claims, asserting that it complied with all federal and state drinking water regulations, and that KVSP has consistently conducted water testing to ensure safety for its incarcerated population and staff.
CDCR Information Officer Joe Orlando told Truthout:
Prior to the activation of Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP) in 2005, it was identified by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that the water supplied by wells at KVSP would require additional treatment in order to meet the new federal and state drinking water quality standards related to arsenic levels. In the subsequent years, the department built an Arsenic Removal Water Treatment System Project designed to meet the current and future needs of KVSP. The KVSP Arsenic Water Treatment Plant began construction in 2010 and was operational in March 2012.
CDCR complied with all requirements placed upon it by both the federal EPA and the state Department of Public Health in the interim until the arsenic plant was completed and compliance with state and federal standards was achieved. KVSP tests and monitors the water regularly to ensure it is safe to use and consume.
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”
As required by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), CDCR staff began posting flyers around the prison in 2008 to alert incarcerated people at KVSP that their water contained arsenic levels above the maximum limit determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 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. Each quarter the flyers were updated and reposted, as the timeline for the construction of the arsenic treatment system was pushed back from 2009 until its 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. After arriving at the facility in 2010 as a chronic care patient with several comorbidities, Singleton lost 50 pounds in 90 days. “They did a body scan [MRI] because I 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. When the doctors finally biopsied his right kidney about two years later, a doctor told Singleton that it was too late for treatment, and that his kidney needed to be removed immediately. Fearing the arsenic in the water would continue to worsen his condition, Singleton requested to be transferred on medical grounds and was eventually moved 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.
On top of fighting to have access to his medical records and advocating for treatment, Singleton continued to file legal appeals to argue that the arsenic levels constituted cruel and unusual punishment for all prisoners held at KVSP. 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.
Taking matters into his own hands, Williams filed a lawsuit against 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 was so horrible. 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 water received a form letter denying their request, signed by the warden. “Drinking it tasted horrible,” he said, “All the prisoners felt the same way. We would take baby 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. Nurses in the infirmary gave him a solution to put on his skin and advised that he avoid going outdoors, which they said was the cause of the rashes. Soon after, he developed routine headaches, nausea and chest pain, and on May 20, 2013, he began to vomit blood. Nurses took note of his symptoms but had little to offer. Now at a different California prison, Slaughter says he still can’t finish a whole bowl of ramen without feeling ill. He worries about the water in his noodles.
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 prison in 2013.
The CDCR called only one doctor to court proceedings to review the medical conditions listed in each case, Richard Geller, who practices emergency medicine in Madera, California. 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 that in his view, the medical effects of arsenic are dependent on physical examination of each of these individuals, as well as the years of exposure, the average amount of water ingested per day, and preexisting conditions. But getting ahold of such information, especially so long after the fact, is close to impossible.
KVSP Water Treatment Funds Allocated But Unused
Both the CDCR and KVSP were aware of the situation, as a year after KVSP was built in 2005, the CDCR applied for a permit to 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. The CDCR received $2.5 million in 2006 as a part of California Assembly Bill 1801 to build the plant, but construction did not begin as promised. Instead of transferring its population until it had a functional water treatment system, the CDCR continued to hold between 3,000 and 5,000 prisoners at KVSP, well above the designed capacity of 2,448, since its opening in 2005.
On December 12, 2008, the CDPH, which housed the Division of Drinking Water at the time, issued a compliance order to the KVSP water system for elevated arsenic levels. The order required KVSP officials to post flyers alerting prisoners of their consumption of water contaminated with arsenic and were posted quarterly until 2012 when plant construction finally 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 of the Central California Section of the State Water Resources Control Board, oversaw most of the violations and compliance orders sent to KVSP. She also signed the 2013 citation for failing to collect water samples and submit them for arsenic testing, which she said is an extremely rare type of violation. From May to July 2013, when the arsenic water system was supposed to be in operation, water samples were neither collected nor sent to a laboratory for testing.
Eli McFarland, water resource control engineer for the State Water Resources Control Board, explained that there was also no approved operations plan for the KVSP plant. “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 allowed to open the arsenic treatment plant without adhering to the standard process because of the immediate need faced by a dependent population with no alternate water source, as is sometimes the case with schools or nursing homes. However, the decision to proceed without an operations plan meant that the CDCR was let off the hook yet again, without a process for ensuring clean drinking water for its aforementioned vulnerable population.
Arsenic in Drinking Water
Although arsenic is best known as a poison at large doses, it also poses serious health risks at lower levels 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. Inorganic arsenic exposure can have a wide range of effects and has been associated with an increased risk of cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidneys, nasal passages, liver and prostate. Additionally, long-term exposure to lower levels of arsenic can result in skin lesions, rashes, warts, complications of the gastrointestinal tract, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels and impaired nerve function.
As environmental justice community groups across the country have routinely demonstrated since the 1980s, contaminated drinking water is often the result of toxins that have accumulated over years by unregulated industrial activities, most often affecting people of color and low-income communities.
Environmental justice investigations into prison drinking water are relatively recent, but activists and journalists have found cases of extreme neglect of prison water quality across the country. Truthout broke ground on the issue beginning in 2016, launching an extensive investigative series in partnership with Earth Island Journal looking at the intersections of mass incarceration and environmental justice and detailing cases of arsenic- and lead-contaminated drinking water at prisons in Texas and throughout the country. Since then, a 2020 study of arsenic in public water systems throughout the United States backed up Truthout’s findings, showing that incarcerated people are at disproportionate risk for exposure to arsenic through their drinking water.
Amid the current push from prison abolitionist organizations to close 10 prisons by 2025, KVSP is a prime target for closure. Although the CDCR remains unaccountable to the thousands of people forced to drink arsenic-laced water at KVSP, people who have suffered from the medical conditions that they developed in California prisons are not letting the department off the hook just yet.
This article was developed from a research project conducted with Elsa Calderon.