After filing a lawsuit in 2014, four prisoners at Wallace Pack Unit, Navasota, Texas, will hopefully be feeling some relief after U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison recently gave the prison 15 days to replace the water supply.
However, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice says it plans to appeal the ruling, with a spokesman saying a new filtration system has been designed and should be installed in 2017.
The lawsuit was filed in relation to unsafe drinking water, which is laden with unsafe levels of arsenic, up to 4.5 times more than that permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency, and exposure to dangerous heat levels without air conditioning, which are allegedly unsafe and could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.
One of the attorneys for the inmates said that the prison system has unacceptably known about the unsafe arsenic levels since 2006, and inmates have made comments about the extreme conditions, noting that the heat and humidity can cause difficulty breathing, as temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees.
The inmates have not been seeking monetary damages -- they just want to be in a place that is safe, and besides safe drinking water, want the inside temperature to not exceed 88 degrees. It is tragic that this is a lawsuit that even needs to happen, and it is not the first set of complaints -- at least 20 prisoners have died in non-air-conditioned Texas prisons from overheating since 1998, including 10 who died in 2011 alone.
As one of the attorneys for the prisoners commented, you have taken away people's liberty, and they are there to serve their time for the crime committed, but you have to provide certain protections, and inmates do not lose all of their rights.
While the United States does not recognize the human right to water, many other nations, and international bodies such as the United Nations, do, and this would certainly be considered a violation of the right to safe drinking water. The UN considers "The human right to water ... indispensable for leading a human life in dignity" and that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential.
"We should be ensuring these rights for all people, including those who are incarcerated. It should not require lawsuits or multiple deaths before safe water is provided," the UN says.
Unfortunately, these are not the only rights violations seen in the U.S. prison system. Prisoners can spend years, or even decades, in solitary confinement, face excessive violence or even torture, lack of access to medical care, and unfair and extreme sentencing, according to organizations such as Food and Water Watch.
All of this is a continued problem with the current mass incarceration system, which thankfully many lawmakers seem to be increasingly aware of and working to change, but clearly not enough. When we are violating our most basic rights, and denying the most basic of needs, regardless of to whom, we are doing something wrong. Provision of water and adequate shelter should be de facto, not something that needs to be earned or won.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com