Tuesday 1 February 2011

California Prisoners Sentenced to Death by Water

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 memoinforming 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.
“My son is supposed to be released in 13 years,” says Nava. “Well, what medical problems is he going to have when he's released? Will he be able to function normally? Or is he going to be released just to die from cancer because of the water?” And for the heartless, to-hell-with-them types out there: who do you think is going to pick up the medical bill?
Nava's not the only one wondering what the long-term effects of drinking arsenic-laced water will have on her child. Blanca Gonzalez is another mother whose son did time at Kern Valley State Prison, where she says he became incredibly ill because of the foul water he was forced to drink. Speaking to Change.org, she explains why she’s now launched a campaign targeting California state lawmakers urging them to do something about the long, drawn out death sentence to which many of the prison’s nearly 5,000 inmates have been extra-judicially sentenced.
“Prior to my son being incarcerated, prison issues did not interest me,” Gonzalez says. “I was not interested in them because my kids were all doing good, I had a good job, had money in the bank, lived in a good neighborhood without gangs. So why worry?”
Only after her son was imprisoned -- when she was personally affected by the U.S.’s over-reliance on incarceration -- did her thinking change. “And I must tell you,” she says, “I am appalled at the treatment in prison, the conditions of confinement. And I pray that this does not happen to other people.”
Unfortunately, as Gonzalez is well aware, it’s all too easy to dismiss the suffering of people in prison -- of those who are physically separated from society, easily demonized and usually forgotten.
However, as Nava explains, it’s not just the prisoners who are suffering from their ill treatment. “We’re suffering along with them,” shey says, “they’re not suffering by themselves.” And though those behind bars may very well have made mistakes, “they have families. They have people who care for them. They are not to be forgotten, because they are human.”
But you wouldn’t know it from the way they are treated.
Charles Davis

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