The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has issued drinking water violation notices to 10 state-run prisons, including Stateville and Pontiac correctional facilities southwest of Chicago.
Since last December, the agency has alleged facilities were not testing their water for harmful chemicals like chlorine, copper and lead. Many of them also lacked proper water treatment and sanitation infrastructure, including water softeners.
The IEPA also noted that nearly all 10 facilities did not have emergency plans for alternative supplies of drinking water in cases of natural disasters, or when the community water supply is contaminated.
In a statement to WBEZ, the IEPA said it will continue to work with the Illinois Department of Corrections to rectify these issues.
The department of corrections said in a statement to WBEZ that it will put recently released funds from the state’s Capital Development Board towards addressing the violation notices, and continue to work with the IEPA.
“The safety of staff, individuals in custody, and visitors to our facilities remain our priority,” the statement read.
A coalition of prisoners’ rights and environmental groups has been calling on state officials to take action for the past year, after receiving numerous complaints from incarcerated people.
Alan Mills, executive director of the nonprofit Uptown People’s Law Center, said some of those complaints are about dirty, smelly water.
“I don’t remember the last time I went to a prison and guards were willing to drink the water there. They all carry water bottles around,” Mills said. “Everybody knows the water’s not good.”
Mills said many of these facilities were built more than a hundred years ago and have not been maintained properly. He hopes now that the IEPA has its eye on the issue, this spurs prisons to start paying more attention to their water quality.
“You’re not doing testing, you’re not doing all the things you’re supposed to do,” Mills said. “Because nobody ever asked them to before. So we will see what – now that they started to do the testing – what actual substances come out of that testing.”
The coalition sent a letter to Governor JB Pritzker last April urging him to address outbreaks of Legionnella, a bacteria that causes the potentially-fatal Legionnaires’ disease, in the water at a dozen prisons across the state.
David Moran with the group Coalition to Decarcerate Illinois said they just heard back from the state last month.
“It took, like, half a year for them to respond to things that, realistically, are probably worse than when we asked them,” Moran said. “It’s so incredibly frustrating.”
Moran’s group works with families and friends of incarcerated people to fight for prisoners’ rights. He said these water violations are a reflection of the state’s lack of care for incarcerated people.
“It only becomes more and more apparent that things need to happen in a way that is meaningful, and at the end of the day, allows our people to live,” Moran said.
He said his group is meeting with the IEPA, the U.S. EPA and the Illinois Department of Public Health next week to discuss the issue.