California opened its newest prison in 2005 in Delano with a modern design, cutting-edge security features and a serious environmental problem. The drinking water pumped from two wells at the Kern Valley State Prison contained arsenic, a known cause of cancer, in amounts far higher than a federal safety standard soon to take effect, says the Los Angeles Times. Nearly three years after missing the government’s deadline to reduce the arsenic levels, the state has no concrete plans or funding to do so. Officials spent $629,000 to design a filtration system and decided not to build it, neglecting to inform staff and inmates that they were consuming contaminated water.
The inmates continued drinking the water, under protest. “We have no choice,” said Larry Tillman, 38, who was serving time for burglary. “We should at the very least receive bottled water, or truck in water from another city.” Most correctional officers take bottled water to work; administrators created a form letter to reject requests for alternative water from some of the 4,800 inmates. The administrators say the health hazard from arsenic, a chemical used in industry and farming, is insignificant, and they promise to filter the water some time in the next few years. The state has placed many of its lockups far from major cities, in rural areas with nothing as far as the eye can see, where they are embraced by residents desperate for jobs and commerce. Officials have sometimes ignored health threats endemic to these regions. Between 1987 and 1994, the state built four prisons in an area known as a hotbed of valley fever, a sometimes severe infection that usually affects the lungs.