Prisoners report on San Quentin health crisis: Legionella outbreak prompts water shutdown

by Kevin D. Sawyer

On the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, government officials and first responders continue to lack the ability to plan for emergency situations.

San Quentin State Prison, California’s oldest prison, is still on a virtual lockdown – or “modified program” – as normal programs for all inmates have ceased since Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, after “one confirmed case of Legionnaires’ disease” was discovered, Warden Ron Davis’ Aug. 27 bulletin said.

San-Quentin-300x196, Prisoners report on San Quentin health crisis: Legionella outbreak prompts water shutdown, Abolition Now!
San Quentin’s West Block

“They (San Quentin and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) knew this was coming,” said Charles Reece (D-06522). “The first of the month they said they were going to shut down the water to clean the pipes.”

In the afternoon of Aug. 27, prison officials placed yellow “Caution” tape and signs on drinking fountains on the prison’s Lower Yard. “Don’t Drink the Water,” the signs said.

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Later that afternoon the prison administration ordered a mandatory institutional recall of all inmates directing them to return to their cells inside of their re­spective housing units.

Inmates said prison officials and medical staff had prior knowledge of the spread of Legionella symptoms, suspecting there is a health emergency brewing.

“If this has been going on since Monday (Aug. 24) how come all of a sudden Thursday it’s coming out?” queried Elliott Beverly (K-42353).

On Friday, Aug. 28, the prison would not allow inmates to shower due to the Legionella outbreak.

Because of the drought emergency declared by Gov. Brown earlier this year, inmates at San Quentin have already been limited to three showers a week.

“I think it’s a Machiavellian trick on the CDCR’s part to curb water use,” said Steven Haden (P-32966). “I can’t do my normal body functions to live. I’m a human being. I can’t shut down like a machine.”

“They shut the water off at 8:00 p.m. last night (Aug. 27) and said they were going to bring us bottled water,” said Reace.

“Effective immediately, all water at the facility is non-potable pending testing of our water sources,” the warden’s bulletin said.

On Thursday evening in West Block, officers announced over the public address system that they would do hourly cell unlocks for inmates who need to use the bathroom.

Inmates said prison officials and medical staff had prior knowledge of the spread of Legionella symptoms, suspecting there is a health emergency brewing.

“The process they’re using now is totally barbaric,” said Terry Slaughter (C-89387). “The prison (officials) failed to have a proper back-up system for this prison.”

According to the California Code of Regulations (Title 15, Division 3, § 3301, Emergency Operations Plan), “Each warden must have in effect at all times an Emergency Operations Plan, approved by the Emergency Planning and Management Unit, to assist in the preparations for response to and recovery from ‘All Hazards’ incidents.”

Qadree Birch (J-53333) works in the prison kitchen. He said he was not allowed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, “Nor did they supply us any water, but they want us to go to work.” He said he was in his cell for 16 hours with the water turned off and the flushing mechanism disabled on the toilet, “without warning.”

“For inside the institution, all water will be shut off to the housing units,” the warden’s bulletin said. “For staff and inmates, bottled water and secondary water resources will be deployed throughout the institution for consumption.”

Inmates in West Block have been receiving secondary water that is trucked in and stored inside of a temporary water tank on the Lower Yard. Twenty-four hours after the warden’s bulletin was issued, no inmate had received bottled water. As of Monday, Aug. 31, West Block inmates still have not received bottled water.

San-Quentin-Wardens-Bulletin-re-Legionella-water-shutdown-082715-232x300, Prisoners report on San Quentin health crisis: Legionella outbreak prompts water shutdown, Abolition Now! Corrections officers arriving to work on Friday, Aug. 28, could be seen carry­ing their own bottled water that either the prison issued to them or they purchased outside the prison. On Sunday, Aug. 30, eight boxes containing six half-gallon bottles of water each were brought into West Block and placed at the corrections officers’ work station. It was later moved when inmates began asking questions.

“They weren’t prepared,” said J.D. Martin (D-44170). “They should have brought bottled water (for the inmates). We don’t know where the water provided comes from. The water they did bring was foul tasting. They could have provided better meals too.”

Inmates were given box lunches containing four pieces of bread, peanut butter and jelly, two cookies, sunflower seeds and a flavored beverage packet for dinner on Thursday evening, and again on Friday morning, Aug. 28, for breakfast.

“They’re killin’ us with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” said Reece.

“Whether it’s true or not (that there’s a Legionella outbreak), I can appreciated that something was done, but San Quentin’s prison administration was not prepared for this,” said James Benson (E-C5506).

On the morning of Aug. 28, inmates were allowed outside of their cells to pick up their breakfast, lunch and water. The meals were served in front of several trash dumpsters that smelled of garbage from West Block waste.

Inmates were not allowed access to the dining hall, which is where meals are normally picked up during modified programs. At the time there were no means or provisions made available for the men to wash their hands, irrespective of the water being shut off the day before.

“They’re killin’ us with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” said Reece.

Because drinking water was provided that came from portable kitchen thermoses, Beverly asked, “Where’s the water coming from?”

“It’s a sad state of affairs when men are oppressed and deprived of their basic human rights and necessities,” said Shaka Senegal Muhammad (K-16606), who is an Inmate Disability Assistance Program worker.

On West Block’s Upper Yard, 14 new Honey Bucket porta-potties, made by Satellite Industries, Inc., were made available by Friday morning for inmate use. No seat covers or extra toilet paper was provided.

There were two hand-washing stations provided later – for more than 700 inmates. No paper towels were available in the morning, and each unit ran out of water in less than an hour. Both of the water storage tanks had trash in the bottom.

Leroy Lucas (J-44232) said he went to medical on Thursday, Aug. 27, and saw a Dr. Beatty, who told him he had Legionella. “I have all the symptoms of Legionella: short breath, coughing.” He said a prescription for antibiotics was written for him but as of that evening he had not received medication.

Reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, men stood in line in the hot sun for hours waiting to get water from the portable thermoses. They were told it was uncontaminated water, but because it was not bottled they questioned where it came from.

The men had to provide their own cups. State-issued cups for meals hold eight fluid ounces. Indigent inmates who cannot purchase larger containers had to use plastic coffee jars and soda bottles which according to prison rules are considered contraband once the original contents are depleted.

“Enough bottled water should have been stored and made accessible within about three or four hours,” said Benson. “We went without water for more than 12 hours. This is an emergency.”

Robert Ortiz (T-90745) said the state should test the water more often to prevent any type of outbreak. “I feel they should always be prepared with bottled water. We didn’t get to use the bathroom or drink water until 2:00 in the morning.” Quoting the Ifa religion, Babalawo Orisan, Ortiz said, ‘“Water is life and without it, it’s all bad with everything.’”

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San Quentin Prison Warden Ron Davis

“It looks like a third-world country out there,” said Lucas.

Haden said the situation the prison administration has created with the water is inadequate. “If they can’t give me what I need to exist as a human being, then they need to let me go.”

The CDCR is still under federal receivership by the federal court due to decades of medical and mental health neglect of inmates, and it has been ordered to reduce the inmate population to 137.5 percent of overall design capacity.

“The fear is we don’t want other individuals to be effected,” Lt. Samuel Robinson, San Quentin’s public information officer, told NBC Bay Area news, KNTV, Channel 11. “It’s an uncomfortable period of time, but bear with us and we’ll get through it.”

Prison officials have spoken to inmates through the Men’s Advisory Council (MAC), an elected body of inmates that serves as the liaison between the administration and inmates.

MAC representative Jamal Lewis (H-57184) said, “They need to condemn this mother-f**kin’ place. They put us through cruel and unusual conditions and expect us to take it.”

Late Saturday, Aug. 29, NBC reported more than 30 inmates with symptoms of Legionella.

On Sunday, ABC reported six cases of inmates with the pneumonia-like disease and 51 more with symptoms.

As of Monday, Aug. 31, the inmates in West Block have gone more than 96 hours without a hot meal and no bottled water. The only inmates known to be receiving bottled water are the men in the Adjustment Center, Death Row and administrative segregation.

“Some of the water I tasted tastes kind of stale,” said Wade Morman (H-36783). “I’m disappointed they would deceive the public, namely about portable showers. I haven’t had a shower in five days.”

All of this comes less than a week after the prison hosted the largest health fair in the nation held inside of a correctional facility. It was the prison’s 12th annual health fair sponsored by the inmate group TRUST (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training) and Centerforce in conjunction with the Bay Area Black Nurses Association.

Prison officials have spoken to inmates through the Men’s Advisory Council (MAC), an elected body of inmates that serves as the liaison between the administration and inmates.

“They (SQ and CDC officials) lied to Channel 5 News (KPTX) about bottled water. Nobody on the mainline has received bottled water,” said Russell Bowden (D-82038). “Staff has been using said bottled water that was supposed to go to inmates.”

Bowden said he was told by an inmate kitchen worker that the bottled water is stacked in the kitchen. He also said there are inmates who have had Valley Fever in other CDCR prisons and other serious ailments that compromise their immune systems and are subject to “serious physical harm.”

“Where’s the contingency plan?” asked Charles David Henry (F-00408). He said the prison has not provided him with the required distilled water for his C-Pap breath­ing machine. He uses it at night to generate water vapor for his lungs. He said it restores oxygen to his blood while he sleeps.

According to Henry, he asked Sgt. Collier when he would get his water. He said the sergeant contacted the prison’s medical department and was told to inform Henry to use regular water.

“They said on the news they (prison officials) were using water to cook our meals and we haven’t had cooked food since this started,” said Morman. “They said we have portable showers and bottled water.”

Late Sunday afternoon, Aug. 30, the first wave of inmates in West Block were escorted to the Lower Yard to take showers in portable mobile showers.

“No one in four days has received a shower and no hot meals,” said Bowden.

Occupy-San-Quentin-700-rally-022012-by-James-Cacciatore-Marin-Independent-Journal, Prisoners report on San Quentin health crisis: Legionella outbreak prompts water shutdown, Abolition Now!
On Feb. 20, 2012, thousands made their way to San Quentin to the Occupy 4 Prisoners rally at the main gate. Maybe it’s time to do it again. – Photo: James Cacciatore, Marin Independent Journal

Considering the circumstances, the prisoners have been fairly calm throughout the ordeal, although many are heard discussing the matter around the cell block, express­ing their dismay about how the situation has been handled. Some say they are going to file grievances.

As of Sunday, all inmates have been given showers. They are still eating the box lunches, no fruit in two days. West Block inmates have not had any vegetables, hot meals or bottled water. They did, however, pick up the box lunches for dinner in the dining hall instead of in front of the trash dumpsters.

On Monday, Aug. 31, inmates in West Block were served box lunches for breakfast and dinner.

“I don’t see why they’re (prison officials and the media) saying we’re getting bottled water that we haven’t received since it started,” said Tyrone Bracks (P-06686) on Wednesday, Sept. 2. “We barely started getting hot meals.”

On Sept. 1, representatives from the Prison Law Office came to West Block’s Upper Yard to talk with inmates and ask questions about what was going on. Other inmates reported that San Quentin Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson escorted the PLO to West Block.

On Sept. 2 at 7:57 a.m., KPIX Channel 5 reported inmates receiving “hot meals.” This most certainly was not true for West Block inmates. The first hot meals served since the Legionella incident began on Aug. 27 was at the evening meal on Sept. 2 at 5:00 p.m.

“I’m not getting enough nutrition to keep my body healthy,” said Gary Laine (V-90706). He said he has heart disease and is in bad health. “My stomach’s all messed up” from eating all the peanut butter.

“I don’t see why they’re (prison officials and the media) saying we’re getting bottled water that we haven’t received since it started,” said Tyrone Bracks (P-06686) on Wednesday, Sept. 2. “We barely started getting hot meals.”

On Sept. 2, KNTV Channel 11 reported 95 inmates with Legionella-like symptoms at San Quentin.

On the same day, it was reported by some West Block inmates that the Marin County Health Department visited the prison. At the time of this report it was not clear what the purpose of the visit was.

Kevin D. Sawyer is a staff writer for San Quentin News,, and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ No. 9996646). He holds a B.A. in mass communication with a broadcasting option from California State Univer­sity, Hayward, and a diploma as a paralegal and legal assistant from Blackstone Career Institute. Send our brother some love and light: Kevin D. Sawyer, P-22673, 1W-69U, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin CA 94974.

Contaminated water at San Quentin

by Shai Alkebu-Lan

On Aug. 27, the Men’s Advisory Council met with prison officials to discuss the problems of a contaminated water supply at San Quentin. Since Aug. 24, dozens of inmates have been hospitalized due to a contaminated water supply.

Usually this occurs temporarily during the backwashing of the filters, but this time the contaminants made their way into the drinking water reservoir.

At present (Aug. 28), there are no fatalities, and according to the MAC representatives, all water is shut off, drinking water shall be shipped in and portable toilets shall be made available 24 hours a day.

However, the prison is on lockdown. There shall be no movement until the problem subsides.

The inmate population wants the community to know our plight and to be watchful of your own water supply.

Send our brother some love and light: Shai Alkebu-Lan, P-02598, 5W-16L, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin CA 94974.

The spread of disease at San Quentin

by a death row SHU prisoner

Having an incubation period of up to 10 days, Legionnaires Disease may be activated by the steam of cooking or perhaps a hot shower. That’s according to information from various memos and bulletins posted on SQTV and local corporate media channels.

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San Quentin East Block death row

Based on one confirmed case, the first step Acting Warden Ron Davis took was to shut off the water supply to all the housing units. Considering the fact the water was turned back on within 24 hours of the reactionary shutoff, it’s reasonable to conclude nobody in charge thought the bacteria – Legionella – was being introduced via the prison’s water supply. In fact, at no time during Davis’ feigned fervor was staff-access-only water shut off.

Once the water was back on, Davis assured all staff and inmates, “It is OK to use the water for cooking.” Despite that being in writing, as of Aug. 30, prisoners warehoused in the death row SHUs and perhaps throughout San Quentin continue being fed sacks of dry, uncooked food for breakfast, lunch and dinner as if we’re dogs in a kennel.

The local corporate media didn’t report how malfunctioning water-limiting hardware causes toilets to flush continuously and how they’re left running for hours, days and even weeks. One has been flushing since about 6:30 a.m., and it’s now 10 a.m. There’s actually a prisoner in that cell too.

As I sit here listening to a toilet flushing into its 12th hour straight, knowing it must be shooting a mist of bacteria – including Legionella? – into the air, which the occupant cannot escape from, I wonder how anyone in his right mind can’t see why the prison health care system is overwhelmed to the point of being declared cruel and unusual punishment.

On Aug. 31, the day this was sent to the Bay View, the in-cell second tier temperature reached 81.2 degrees by 8 p.m., and the toilet was still flushing when the mail was picked up.

An even more deadly sickness keeps spreading throughout prison systems in the U.S., and it’s a lot like an antibiotic resistant strain of influenza. Reform cannot eradicate it and this strain is particularly vicious since nobody is immune to all the physical and mental damage hidden in denial and media manipulation.

The hospital is like a heat bath

by a San Quentin prisoner, with comments from his wife, Sabine Capers

There’s something wrong with the water here in the prison and all of the water has been shut off and the whole prison is now on lockdown. They told us not to drink the water in the sink and have passed out bottles of water.

I am not sure what it’s all about, but there have been a lot of people getting sick. There is one up here in the PIP (Psychiatric Inpatient Program) who has it. I am kind of freaked out about it due to the amount of water I drink every day.

For some reason they have turned off the ventilation system. It’s so hot that nobody can even sleep. There are big fans outside of our rooms in the hallway, but what good are they when we are locked in a room with a solid door?

The entire hospital is like a heat bath. Everybody is suffering.

I am so glad that I am not in any of the units right now. I can only imagine how East Block is with no water to flush our toilets and no ventilation.

It’s bad here in the PIP, so it has to be worse over there in the East Block. It seems that nobody knows anything. Today is Friday, and we will have to deal with it over the weekend. I really am not looking forward to it.

From Sabine Capers

Press reports are true that say they brought in portable showers, but prisoners on death row, the Adjustment Center and the PIP (hospital building ) are not allowed to use them. They didn’t have a shower in over a week, which is a violation of their constitutional rights.

They were told to use wipes to clean themselves, which is simply a joke. Some have begun to use water from their sink despite the danger, because they sweat.

It’s terribly hot inside of the building because the ventilation system has been shut down. My spouse is in there and I know people in East Block, so I get my daily update about the situation and it’s half as fine as the CDCR tries to make the public believe.

The men in there really need help. I don’t expect the CDCR will resolve the issue any time soon. They don’t even know what the source of the outbreak is.

I spoke to my husband last night and he said they put bacteria filters over the shower heads and told the prisoners they now can shower if they want, but nobody said anything about the issue being resolved. I know how expensive such filters are and it makes me wonder for how long they want to do that, or for how long they can do it.

It’s expensive and the contaminated filters have to be changed after the showers. And we are talking about some thousand people who’ll use the showers.

Sabine Capers can be reached at