California Prisoners Sentenced to Death by Water

by Charles Davis

The water at Kern Valley State Prison contains twice the federally accepted level of arsenic, a known carcinogen. But the 4,800 men imprisoned at the “state-of-the-art” Central California facility have no choice: they have to drink it.

And it’s not as if prison officials just learned about the issue last week. In fact, tests on the water discovered the problem soon after the prison opened in 2005. The powers that be have just chosen to do nothing about it.

Not that there haven’t been promises. In a 2008 memo informing both incarcererated men and prison employees of the problem, then-warden Anthony Hedgpeth said that “[w]e anticipate resolving the problem by June 2009.” Notice that ambiguous phrasing –“anticipate resolving” — instead of a simple declarative sentence like, say, “we will resolve the problem.”

Tellingly, the same memo declares: “This is not an emergency,” never mind the fact that arsenic is known to damage the circulatory system and to cause “cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidneys, nasal passages, liver and prostate,” according to the EPA. And promises aside, nothing has been done to address the problem of the prison poisoning its prisoners. In the meantime, prison officials have pressed for a massive expansion of Kern Valley State Prison, at an annual cost to taxpayers of $86 million.


Clearly, officials at Kern Valley State Prison just don’t care about the health and well-being of those they are charged with overseeing. But don’t take my word for it. “It’s not that major of an issue,” says Hedgepeth’s successor, Kelly Harrington, of his prison’s poison problem. Not to him, maybe (I have a hunch he brings in his own bottled water).

It is a problem to those forced to drink water that, according to Bertha Nava, the mother of a man incarcerated there for the last five years, only looks like “part water” — the other part being urine. In an interview, she says her son has been denied not just clean drinking water, but medication for the nerve damage in his left leg. He’s also lost 20 pounds because the food at the prison is inadequate to meet an adult man’s needs. And because of a perpetual state of “lock down,” Nava says she’s been unable to so much as seen her son for the past six months.

Part of the problem is California’s budget woes; in a time of economic crisis, the most affected or those who are already the most neglected by society: prisoners and the poor. But that’s not all of it, as folks like Warden Harrington have made clear.

“They really don’t care,” Nava says, her pain evident as she talks. “They don’t care about the prisoners in there. They really, really neglect them.” And the consequences of that neglect will be felt for years to come — by prisoners, their families and the members of society they will someday rejoin.

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4 thoughts on “California Prisoners Sentenced to Death by Water

  1. Most of the people in prison are there because of somthing bad they have done. Personally, I think we should worry about more important things in life.


  2. Its not just the officials at KVSP. There is another agency which is acutely aware of this health risk. This ‘other’ agency might be looking the other direction (which makes them complicit), as they have substantial authority to mandate drastic changes and improvements regarding this basic life-essential resource.

    I am surprised the author of the article, as good as he writes, omitted any references to this agency and their role in this problem.


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