STILLWATER, Minn. — A week after a protest at Stillwater Prison led to a lockdown, the Department of Corrections is giving inmates bottled drinking water. This is a temporary solution while the agency re-tests the prison's well water supply.
Advocates and former inmates say the water that comes out of faucets inside inmates' cells has had a brown or reddish tint at times for years. And some have complained of a metallic taste in that water, which was one of the factors that led to the inmate protest last week.
So far, they've been unable to convince prison officials that it's hazardous.
"We've always gotten back that the water report says it's clean and that there are no issues. We would then respond back, 'Yes, but the water is brown'," Elizer Darris, a former Stillwater inmate who works as a criminal justice reform advocate, told KARE.
"Many of the individuals, if they can they really avoid drinking it, and if they can't others tie on makeshift filtration devices, which could be torn up bed sheets, could be socks. During those times when it’s not drinkable, your clothes aren’t washable. Your white clothes come out a coffee color."
The DOC maintains that monthly and yearly tests of the water supply have shown it meets all safe drinking water standards, despite the discoloration. But, for the first time ever, they've ordered tests for the levels of organic sediment in the water in addition to the other standard tests.
In the meantime, inmates will have access to drinking water. The DOC ordered 51,000 bottles of drinking water. That's enough for seven bottles per inmate for five days. According to the DOC, that may be extended depending on progress on the water tests.
"This is a step in the right direction. It’s not far enough," Darris remarked.
"Clearly, the water has to be remediated. Clearly, people deserve to have clean drinking water. Just because you’ve been convicted of a crime that does not forfeit your rights and your protections under the US constitution."
In the past, inmates have had access to drinking fountains in common areas that filtered the water. But staffing shortages at the prison led to prisoners spending more time in their cells where the only water available was unfiltered.
"So, when they’re locked inside of that cell for days and days and days they don’t have access to that other water," Marvina Haynes, the sister of a Stillwater prisoner, explained.
"It was ludicrous that it took them so long to admit the water was a different color."
Haynes is part of a group of activists that led a protest outside the prison last week. Her group advocates for those who they believe were wrongfully convicted, or received sentences that didn't fit the crimes they committed.
She said the bottled water is only a temporary solution to the problem.
"I'm very happy the inmates and the staff there will have access to clean water, but they still have to shower in that brown water. So, what does that do to the skin?"
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