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April Ward speaking at press conference

April Ward with MAMAS, speaks at a press conference and rally in response to detected legionella bacteria, which causes legionnaires disease, in 12 Illinois state prisons.

Brian Rich

Illinois prisons have unsafe water, groups warn

Water at Illinois state prisons is contaminated with toxic metals and other potentially harmful contaminants, including the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, a coalition of activists said Thursday, urging Gov. JB Pritzker to take action.

According to prisoner rights, environmental and social justice groups who demonstrated in downtown, contamination issues at some of the more than two dozen correctional facilities include:

Detection of legionella bacteria at a dozen correctional facilities, including Stateville Correctional Center in Will County.

High levels of lead and copper in the water, including some levels that exceed federal limits for such metals.

Low levels of chlorine needed to ward off infections from E. Coli, legionella and other harmful bacteria.

Generally, inadequate treatment of water to prevent harmful contaminants.

“As a mother, I worry about my son,” said April Ward, an activist who said her son is incarcerated at a downstate prison in Pontiac. She called the water issues at prisons “inhumane.”

The state prison system has hired a water consulting firm and is taking actions to address the legionella issue, according to Naomi Puzzello, a spokeswoman for Pritzker’s Department of Corrections.

Puzzello said there have been no reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease at the state prisons.

Traces of legionella at the dozen corrections facilities — a mix of prisons and related operations, such as the Joliet Treatment Center — were previously reported by the non-profit news organization The Appeal.

The Appeal’s analysis identified legionella at a pair of facilities in Crest Hill (Stateville) and centers in Decatur, Dixon, East St. Louis, Hillsboro, Jacksonville, Joliet, Kewanee, Lincoln, Pinckneyville and Taylorville.

“Water is a human right,” said Meleah Geertsma, director of environmental justice policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Every person has a right to safe, clean and sufficient water and sanitation — a right that does not end when a person is incarcerated.”

Geertsma said in an interview that some of the water contamination issues have been known by state officials. She cited documents her organization received through open-records requests, and she said she’s met with both state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials to discuss the matter.

In April, a group of advocacy groups calling itself the Coalition to Decarcerate IL, sent a letter to Pritzker asking him to act on the water issues.

“Decades-long neglect of prison infrastructure has become increasingly perilous,” the letter said.

The letter includes photos the group says shows prison water system infrastructure in serious disrepair.

Noting the presence of legionella, the group told the governor “this bacteria can be deadly and is not safe to drink or inhale.”

“Many of our currently incarcerated loved ones have reported rashes and burning skin as well as yellow and brown water discoloration,” the letter added.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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