Report: California Prisoners Regularly Exposed to Contaminated Water
Diana Zuniga of Californians United for a Responsible Budget hopes her organization’s new report will deter plans to construct a new women’s jail in Los Angeles
EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN: I’m Eddie Conway and this is Rattling the Bars. Recently, there has been a report released in California about the environmental impact of prisons and jails. This report entitled, “We’re Not Disposable: The Toxic Impact of Prisons and Jails” was put together by Californians United for a Responsible Budget. This report, even though it was done in California, is gonna have an impact on prisons and jails across the nation.
Joining me today to explain this and talk about this report is, Diana Zuniga. Diana, can you share with me why the group itself decided to do this report?
DIANA ZUNIGA: Yes, thank you so much. My name is Diana Zuniga and I’m with CURB. I’m one of the statewide coordinators and we decided to do this report because in California there’s 40 out of 50 counties attempting or already building new jails. One of the main things that any construction project has to go through is an environmental impact report. We thought it was important to create a report that would analyze the environmental impact that prisons and jails have in California in order to equip counties and advocates to really be able to engage environmental impact processes when they’re fighting jail expansion in their counties. Our report really lays out really important environmental concerns that have happened at the state prison level and really looks at one particular county, Los Angeles, and their jail plan and the environmental ramifications that are coming up with their proposed women’s jail construction project.
CONWAY: Well, I see that part of the focus of this report is on the use of water and the use of waste management. How is that played out in the prisons and jails in California?
ZUNIGA: The use of water has contributed to human rights violations inside of the prison system. We’ve had several accounts and we’ve seen several accounts and have also seen documents from several different State Departments that have shown the fact that some people have been forced to drink contaminated water inside of the state prison system. There also have been in adequate ways of disposing of used water, which has contributed to contaminating the water in communities around the prisons. So, it’s contaminating lakes in communities around the prisons.
One situation in the Salinas Valley, the inadequate disposal of water contributed to a particular lake in that particular area that was contaminated. The community really couldn’t use it anymore. So, that’s kinda what we’re seeing in the state prison level. We think that in the point that we’re at in California, right now — that we’re also in a severe drought — this will also impact water access. Not only for community members on the outside but we know that its already impacting people that are incarcerated in the California prison system and the drought will only negatively impact their access to water.
CONWAY: One of the things — as I was looking at this report — I realized that here in Maryland, the water in the prison system – which I was forced to drink for years – sometimes comes out brown, beige, yellow. It’s definitely polluted and contaminated. I’m sure this is happening all over the country. Why is the impact on prisoners with this kind of water, this kind of pollution, why is it not reported? Why is it not discovered?
ZUNIGA: I mean, I think that we all already know that the monitoring of prisons and jails is already very difficult for elected officials to do. We see how people are impacted by health and human rights issues, within the prison system and environmental and water issues are also a part of that. In California, the California Department of Corrections does not adequately monitor how much water they’re using and what they’re using the water for. And also the state and the water that is being provided to people that are incarcerated in it. There’s very little oversight on water usage within the state prison system in California. I think that’s a direct result from the lack of monitoring of the California Department of Corrections in California. That is contributing to people being harmed, traumatized.
Now we’re seeing people being forced to drink this contaminated water and not even understanding the health risks that could be associated with water that has arsenic in it or water that is coming out brown. These are really important issues that aren’t even being discussed. It’s because prisons aren’t being monitored at the rate that they should. We really advocate for release, that people should be back in their communities instead of incarcerated in a prison that’s harming them, physically, emotionally – we all know the list goes on.
CONWAY: What is this Valley fever? I see that you’re part of the study who looks at Valley fever. What is that and how is it impacting the prisons and the community?
ZUNIGA: Valley fever is an airborne fungus. If Valley fever spores are inhaled by people, — whether they’re incarcerated or not — they contract the disease, Valley fever. Basically, what the disease does is it starts to impact your lung capacity. It starts to seep into your bones an really break down your immune system. So it is a deadly disease if it is not caught in time. What we have seen at the State level is that there have been dozens of deaths because Valley fever has not been caught. This has really impacted the health and the well-being of the people inside the state prison system. We also know that Valley fever actually resides in desert areas. Desert areas have included the central Valley in California and Arizona, these are places where Valley fever is actually more prominent and its increasing at a rapid rate.
For the women’s jail in LA County, we know that there’s an increase in Valley fever in the Antelope Valley where they’re citing the construction of the women’s jail in Los Angeles County.
CONWAY: This is the new jail that they’re building for $120 million?
ZUNIGA: Yes, this is the new jail that they’re proposing to build and it’ll cost the state and the county $120 million just to build and that’s on top of the $2.3 billion jail plan that Los Angeles County is attempting to embark on.
CONWAY: So what’s the status of that? I understand you’ve just had a press conference in relationship to this and the report?
ZUNIGA: Yes, we actually participated in a press conference today in front of the Board of Supervisors. I’m actually inside of the Board of Supervisors, right now with many of our members still congregating outside. We had a press conference that really looked at the environmental harms of this proposed women’s jail. But also brought specific testimony form women that have been impacted by incarceration. We had one woman that was incarcerated in the Mira Loma facility where they’re intending to build this jail, 25 years ago and talked about the harms that she experienced in this jail and the fact that she shouldn’t have been there in the first place. She should have been home with her family. So we’re here, we were able to delay the vote on the final environmental impact report today but we’re still here in full force, with HAZMAT suits and messages saying that we want the Board to stop the toxic jail.
CONWAY: Tell me, overall, what conclusions did the report come to in the end?
ZUNIGA: First, the conclusions around the proposed women’s jail in LA. The report outlines that the environmental report that the county pulled together is inadequate. It doesn’t have any long-term mitigations that talk about Valley fever. The only mitigation it really had is that it’ll only spray water so that the spores are less likely to rise up. It is an inadequate mitigation. We also saw that there’s huge water access issues at the place that they’re attempting to build this jail and there’s currently a law suit along water rights in the Antelope Valley. So, this jail doesn’t even have a clear way that they’ll be accessing water to give that to the incarcerated communities or even the people that are working there. That was the main County pieces that the report highlights.
At the State level, we really talked about the inadequacy of water usage at the State prison level and the issues of Valley fever that still continue to come up in prisons throughout the state of California that are in desert areas. And we’re asking the governor and the California legislature to stop their move towards refurbishing 12 prisons in California and to really focus on decarceration efforts, instead. And to really think about things like environmental conditions that people are living in.
CONWAY: Was there any other recommendations that the report suggests?
ZUNIGA: Yeah, I mean, the real focus is we don’t want more jails and prisons to be built. We really want services and programs to be funded in our communities instead. Really strong decarceration methods to really bring our people that are inside California prisons and jails back home to their families and communities that they’re a part of with humane and holistic programs that will keep them out of incarceration. So, that’s really our main message
But we’re also sharing the environmental justice concerns to just show another reason why prisons and jails should not be built in California and we need to redirect this money into something different that supports empowering our communities instead.
CONWAY: Yeah, I think that this report is gonna have an impact in other states. Are you gonna make any effort to share this information with other organizations because here, in Maryland, they built – in the last 20 or 30 years – a number of prisons and jails. I don’ t recall any environmental studies. I don’t recall looking at the impact on the community of prisons. I’m wondering, is there any kind of way you can share this with other states’ organizations that’s looking at prisons.
ZUNIGA: Definitely. We are planning to have a national webinar in the next month or so to really push out this resources and it to also share case studies of how organizers in California interacted with environmental impact processes. That is something that we’re planning in the next month. We’d love for organizers, advocates and people interested in fighting prisons and jails – in their towns – to be a part of that webinar. So that they can learn how they can strategically use environmental processes to push back against these construction proposals.
CONWAY: Can you keep us posted as to what happens in terms of the women’s jail? I know its suspended now but we need to know where its gonna go in the future. Can you keep us posted on that?
ZUNIGA: Yeah, we definitely will keep you posted.
CONWAY: Okay, well thank you for joining me.
ZUNIGA: Thank you for having me.
CONWAY: Thank you for joining The Real News.
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