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Families Of Incarcerated People Fear Water At Douglas, Arizona, Prison Is Contaminated Again

Once again, families of inmates living at the Douglas, Arizona, prison say their loved ones are reporting drinking water that smells and tastes like diesel fuel.

In October 2019, after inmates in the Douglas prison made similar complaints of brown, foul smelling water, the Arizona Department of Corrections confirmed water at the prison had a  “noticeable petroleum odor and taste.” 

Spokesman Andrew Wilder said the complex was forced to change water sources.

After a water  outage at the prison in June 2019, Cochise County  switched to a new well as the source of drinking water for the more than 2,000 people incarcerated at Douglas.

During that outage, the prison supplied inmates with bottled water and used portable toilets and sanitation stations for several days.

The October reports of contamination forced Department of Corrections to switch back to the old well.

“An issue with Cochise County’s new well recently affected water that was delivered to the Douglas prison and other customers,” Wilder said. “The county took its new well offline and switched back to the older well,” Wilder said.

At the time, inmates told their families the water was burning their skin after showers and causing diarrhea.

In November, an  ADEQ report released to KJZZ showed the state was investigating the possibility of contamination from an old, nearby gas station.

The report says ADEQ “received complaints from families of inmates about the water smelling like diesel fuel and being discolored” in October after the switch to the new well.

In response to the complaints, ADEQ investigators visited the prison and took water samples. While the samples taken showed acceptable levels of contaminants, inspectors noted several deficiencies with the new well that the county will have to fix.

ADEQ has not determined a cause for the contamination.

KJZZ has spoken with five people who spoke with their family members at the Douglas prison this week. All report the same problems with the water.

A woman whose husband experienced the last contamination said beginning Sunday night, the water became discolored and smelled of diesel fuel at several units at the prison.

One woman’s husband said the diesel smell coming from the water is “overwhelming.” Another man said the water coming from faucets and toilets “reeks of metal polish”

A mother of man imprisoned at Douglas said “My son brushed his teeth and said for over an hour it felt like he was breathing out kerosene.”

Inmates have complained to their family members about sore throats and digestive problems: the same symptoms which preceded news of the last contamination.

Another woman said the inmates are attempting to report the issues but corrections officers are threatening them with disciplinary tickets if they come forward.

ADEQ spokesman Erin Jordan said Thursday, “the Bisbee Douglas Airport public water system, owned by Cochise County, continues to address the deficiencies noted in the inspection report.”

“Once these deficiencies are addressed, the water system will resample the well,” Jordan said. “At this time, the resampling of the well has not occurred. When the system is ready to test the well again, the water during that resampling will NOT go back into the drinking water system. It will be discharged into an impoundment.”

“The water system and ADEQ remain committed to determining a root cause for the previous issue reported by the customer, which is the prison,” Jordan said. She said Bisbee Douglas airport water system personnel visited the well on Monday didn’t report anything unusual.

Jordan confirmed ADEQ has received one complaint about the water at the Douglas prison. Jordan said family members can file complaints via the  ADEQ Environmental Complaint form

“If they have a concern, they can enter it into the form and the appropriate ADEQ staff will respond,” Jordan said. “If desired, they can also report issues anonymously through the form.”

Cochise County spokesperson Amanda Baillie said multiple water samples have been taken and "all have been negative." 

"The County continues to have the water tested and analyzed," Baillie said. “The water supply to the prison, as well as to the Bisbee Douglas International Airport, meets the federal drinking water standards."

The Department of Corrections did not return a request for comment on the water complaints, but has deferred in the past to officials in Cochise County and at ADEQ.

One family member of an incarcerated person expressed her frustration with the continued water problems at Douglas.

“If this was a state-run nursing home, or a foster care group home, and this was happening, the state would move heaven and earth to find out what was going on and fix it,” she said. “But because these are incarcerated people, it’s like they’re second class citizens so it’s not that big of a deal. Well it is a big deal. These are human beings and at the very least they deserve clean water.”

In response to these reports, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality said the agency will be sending inspectors to conduct a complete walk through of the Douglas prison water system on Friday. The ADEQ spokesperson said the warden of the Douglas prison confirmed the water smelled like diesel fuel.

Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.