In the Face of Drought, California Prisons Are Restricting Inmates' Shower and Toilet Use

As part of drought controls imposed across California, inmates in the state's overcrowded prison system—some of whom depend on showers to wash their clothes—are feeling the difference.

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Jul 14 2015, 10:30pm

San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone's been asked to pitch in to help reduce California's water consumption in the face of the state's historic drought, but some are making bigger sacrifices than others.

As part of mandatory drought restrictions announced in April, Governor Jerry Brown ordered public agencies to reduce their water consumption by 25 percent. Officials at the 34 prisons operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's (CDCR) have responded by restricting inmates' shower privileges, ability to flush their cells' toilets, and access to clean clothes, according to interviews with inmates.

At San Quentin State Prison, a men's facility about 20 miles north of San Francisco, most inmates have been restricted to three showers a week for a maximum of five minutes each, according to an April 27 warden's bulletin to the staff. A current inmate there said that showers are on an alternating schedule for water conservation as confirmed in the memo: Three days a week, according to the inmate, showers are turned on for several hours in the afternoons and evenings. The other days, they're on for just three 30–45 minute intervals for certain inmate workers, such as those who handle food or those medically required to bathe every day.

Because each prison monitors showers differently, it's difficult to make generalizations across facilities, and no precise metric exists to calculate how all inmates schedule showers. CDCR spokesperson Bill Sessa told VICE in an email that inmates rotate when they get a shower, and that they are "supervised by correctional staff to ensure that all inmates get an opportunity for a shower when they are entitled to it." But when asked about showering times, he demurred.

"We do not provide overly specific timetables for any prison procedure," Sessa wrote.

Samuel Robinson, a spokesperson from San Quentin, added in an email, "Excluding the Central Health Services Building, we have 150 total shower heads at the prison in the various housing units. Showers are on three days a week for a total of four hours: 45 minutes split over three different time periods; the other...days they are on for 45 min 3x a day (for workers only)."

As the LA Times reported on Friday, prison officials have turned off outdoor showers at facilities across the state. A June lawsuit filed by attorney Daniel Siegel on behalf of California inmates held in the "Adjustment Center"—also known as Death Row—alleges that the men's access to outdoor showers was prohibited due to the drought crisis and that this "is one of the few humanizing things over which [the plaintiff] has control. The recent denial of shower on the yard means that he and the other plaintiffs and class are relegated to three showers a week and are denied the hygienic practice of washing off sweat after a work-out."

The complaint further alleges that correctional officers offer Adjustment Center inmates extra meals for skipping showers in particularly busy days.

The CDCR does not comment on ongoing litigation, but Sessa conceded that limiting showers is not necessarily the most potent way to conserve water. "The showers are just one of hundreds of sources of water use in the prison," he wrote. "The prison is accountable for an overall goal of water reduction and there are other water conservation measures more effective than limiting showers."

According to inmates, prisoners at San Quentin have traditionally used showers to wash their clothing, because they are only provided three clean pairs of underwear per week and laundry services are unreliable. (San Quentin sends at least some of its laundry to Folsom State Prison, more than 100 miles away, because it doesn't have its own facilities.) "You don't want to go into those tiny cells smelling funky," an inmate told me, arguing that five minutes wasn't nearly enough to wash a person and his clothing.

The CDCR has also restricted the number of times inmates can flush their toilets—which are mostly in shared cells—to three times every 15 minutes, inmates said. After that, the water supply shuts off. While that might sound like ample flushing capability, it can present a serious problem in a place like San Quentin, which is more than 160 years old and, despite substantial renovations over the past few decades, still has poor plumbing. Inmates told me that the toilets frequently clog and don't flush fully.

According to the Bakersfield Now, the toilets at Kern State Valley Prison in the Central Valley are being restricted to two flushes every 30 minutes. Toilets in CDCR prisons are also reportedly being outfitted with "flushometers" that limit water use.

The California prison system has had a "very aggressive water conservation program since 2010," Sessa told me in a phone conversation. In addition to the new restrictions on inmates' water use, he cited fixed leaks in infrastructure, new facilities with certified water-efficient technology, and the elimination of ornamental water displays. "We don't wash cars. We aren't watering the lawns," he said.

These changes are apparently working. According to Sessa, CDCR facilities used 7.2 billion gallons of water last year, down from 8.7 billion gallons in 2010. But according to experts like Panagioti Tsolkas, the director of the Prison Ecology Project, a program of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), reductions in water use simply mask the real problem: overcrowding in prisons.

As Tsolklas told me via email, "Actually reducing populations (rather than shuffling them into county facilities or other states) could result in significant water savings."

At a March meeting of a group of inmates at San Quentin called the Men's Advisory Counsel, representatives voiced concerns with prison staff that food safety had been compromised by restrictions on using the water hose in the kitchen. (Sessa, the CDCR spokesman, wrote me that policy on the kitchen hose "depends on the use.....we now scrape waste from plates rather than rinsing them to save water.....but the kitchens still have some obvious needs for water.") And there are lingering health concerns in California prisons beyond the grub. Last month, four inmates filed a lawsuit over medical problems allegedly stemming from Valley Fever, a potentially fatal fungal infection. The fungus that causes Valley Fever grows in soil, but can spread in the air through spores if the soil dries.

All of which is to say the drought in California is proving to be yet another instance where those housed in American prisons disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental hazards.

Follow Jessica Pishko on Twitter.

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