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Groups Call for Water Infrastructure Testing in IL Prisons

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Friday, July 15, 2022   

After reports of water contamination in Illinois prisons, groups are calling on the state to conduct a top-down review of the water and sewer systems in the facilities.

The state's Capital Development Board is currently conducting an assessment of prison infrastructure needs, with the goal of identifying structural updates needed for its facilities.

Jennifer Vollen Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois (JHA), said the review should include water infrastructure. The JHA is one of six advocacy groups calling to expand the assessment.

"The State of Illinois has not made the resources available to provide ongoing maintenance and upkeep for these facilities," Vollen Katz contended. "Many of them are very old, and haven't had attention paid to their physical plant infrastructure in many, many years."

A recent investigation by The Appeal revealed the water at five Illinois prisons was infected with Legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaires' disease, a potentially fatal type of pneumonia. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), there were more than 27,500 people in the prison system as of the end of March.

Vollen Katz contended, aside from the Legionella contamination, the IDOC has not been transparent about prior water-quality issues. She argued any updates to prisons' drinking water and sewer infrastructure should be subject to public review.

"We don't have a good understanding, and there doesn't seem to be ongoing public inspection, of water systems inside our prisons," Vollen Katz stated.

In prisons across the country, water quality has been a concern for incarcerated people and their advocates, as well as those who work in the facilities. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, one-third of state and federal prisons are built within three miles of a Superfund site, where pollution is serious enough to warrant a federal response.


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