State prison officials are conducting new water quality tests at Stillwater prison following demands from advocates and families of incarcerated individuals after a protest by about 100 inmates over Labor Day weekend resulted in a lockdown of the facility.
The Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) called the claims of no access to clean water for inmates false, but ordered on Friday that comprehensive testing be done to the water at the facility. Families and advocates are still calling on the Ombudsperson for Corrections and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to open an investigation into reports of a lack of clean water at the prison, which they say has been a decades-long crisis.
Conditions as told by inmates, families
Advocates and family members of incarcerated individuals say the protest was not due to modified release schedules, as the DOC stated, but the lack of clean water afforded to inmates during some of the hottest days of the year. Reports from inmates inside the prison – including one photo taken two years ago of a toilet using a cell phone inside the facility – describe the water as coffee-colored and metallic in taste.
Marvina Haynes, founder of Minnesota Wrongfully Convicted Judicial Reform, said inmates have resorted to using t-shirts and socks to filter the water themselves.
“They cannot go another day drinking that water with all of those contaminants in it,” said Haynes, whose brother is inside the facility. “We want our folks to come home as healthy as they were when they went into Stillwater prison.”
The 100 inmates who took part in the protest, who live in the B East housing unit, have all lost their jobs within the prison and are being retaliated against by being put into solitary confinement according to some family members. Kathy Stroud Caldwell, whose son Lincoln Caldwell is in the unit, said she hasn’t spoken to her son since the protest happened.
“I’ve been getting calls from other inmates saying that he was depressed. They haven’t let him out since Sunday (Sept. 3) to take a shower, they’re just sliding him cold cereal to eat,” she said. “I want to hear from my son.”
David Boehnke of Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee told reporters on Friday that the protest highlights a decade of human rights abuses inside all prisons across the state, and that this isn’t just a Stillwater issue but a system wide issue.
“It is outrageous that the oversight bodies that are supposed to prevent these blow ups haven’t done these types of investigations before,” he said. “But we call on people in prison and their loved ones to make sure that information goes to the ombuds so that water is tested.”
Advocates are demanding that Ombudsperson for Corrections Margaret Zadra and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights open an investigation into the water situation at the Stillwater facility. Boehnke said he spoke with the Zadra’s office, who told him they has access to test the water but asked that those who are incarcerated and their loved ones specify which specific cells need to be tested.
DOC testing update
On Friday, DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell ordered that the water at the Stillwater facility be tested in the coming week to “assure staff and incarcerated individuals that the water is safe for drinking.” In the meantime, more than 51,000 bottles of water were delivered to the prison for inmates and staff to use, which cost the agency $5,800.
According to the DOC, previous monthly and yearly tests on the water at the prison conducted by a third-party lab and the Minnesota Department of Health have not shown that the water poses any health risks, regularly meeting or exceeding state and federal water quality standards.
This new test, however, will feature a sediment analysis – which hasn’t been done before in previous tests – to determine which sediments and how much is present in the water that is sourced from a well. The test will help the DOC move forward with a new plan to filtrate the sediments from the water.
“We recognize there are sediments in the well water, which can at times affect clarity with a reddish-brown tint,” said DOC Spokesman Andy Skoogman in a release, who added the testing will include water from cell faucets. “It’s important to point out that although the water may be unclear, it has not been deemed unsafe through the routine third party water testing.”
The Labor Day weekend lockdown
At about 8 a.m. on Sept. 2, the DOC placed the prison on emergency lockdown after about 100 inmates housed in the same living unit refused to return to their cells, according to a news release from the state agency. Skoogman said in a Sept. 3 release that there were no injuries and the facility remained peaceful and calm, though staff were “quickly removed” from the common areas in the unit, leaving behind two correctional officers in a secure control area to relay real-time communications to officers in the rest of the facility.
In the release, Skoogman cites modified cell release schedules over the weekend caused by staffing challenges as the reason why the inmates were dissatisfied and staged the protest. The change in schedules resulted in limited access for inmates outside of their cells, which affected their phone use, recreation and ability to take showers.
The DOC said that claims from inmates in the housing unit, as well as from family members and advocates, that the facility does not have clean water and was the reason for the protest are “patently false.”
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