DOC orders testing of water at Stillwater prison after complaints of brown water

Kristi Miller/Pioneer Press/TNS

After complaints from inmates that water in the Stillwater prison was dirty, the Department of Corrections brought in 51,000 bottles of water to the correctional facility on Saturday, according to a news release by the DOC.

The delivery, which authorities say cost $5,800, will give each inmate seven bottles of water a day during more “comprehensive testing” on the prison’s water source by a third-party to make sure the well water coming in through the prison pipes is safe to drink, the release said.

The 51,000 bottles are anticipated to last five days during testing. More bottled water will be purchased “as needed,” said Andy Skoogman, a spokesman for the DOC, in the statement.

Communities United Against Police Brutality reacted to this development on Sunday morning.

“This is an admission that there are issues with the water in Stillwater Prison, that the water is brown as the inmates have stated and that the MN DOC should have taken action sooner,” the statement read, noting that the concerns about water was just one concern inmates raised during a protest last weekend.

In the protest, about 100 inmates didn’t return to their cells when required. The peaceful protest lasted for about six hours.

Other concerns

The CUAPB said that the inmates had other concerns, including “frequent lockdowns due to staffing issues that deny inmates access to telephone calls and showers, lack of air conditioning during brutal heat waves, and now retaliatory discipline that has resulted in at least 30 inmates placed in administrative segregation (solitary confinement) and other discipline without adequate due process rights.”

DOC spokesman Andy Skoogman said Sunday that seven inmates are in solitary confinement (administrative segregation).

“Based on the findings of our investigations, we believe these seven helped organize the protest last weekend,” he wrote.

“There are an additional 120 incarcerated individuals who are on ‘in house’ segregation, meaning they are serving their time IN THEIR OWN cells,” Skoogman wrote (capitalization his), “but they will have limited access to recreation, showers and phone usage. The 120 in ‘in house segregation’ are there a maximum 30 days, but they do have the right to due process and can appeal if they so choose. Same is true for the seven in administrative segregation.”

Skoogman said additional staff members were brought in to the prison from other facilities to “begin lifting the lockdown for the incarcerated individuals who did not take part in the protest but are living in that same unit. They were the first this weekend to get out of their cells for rec, phone time and showers.”

When asked about the water testing, David Boehnke, a spokesman for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (a union for the incarcerated that fights for prison abolition), said, “It’s very hard to trust the two agencies who have failed to appropriately test the water for years, with decades of complaints.”

Boehnke noted that there are Black-owned water companies that are willing to donate water until an independent investigation is done.

“We have received multiple reports of health impacts from the water including skin, hair, and stomach problems, including cancer,” Boehnke wrote. “The DOC’s continued refusal to acknowledge such health concerns now that they are finally testing the water further erodes trust in the truth of whatever results they may find.”

In addition, Boehnke wrote there are continuing issues to be addressed, including “the repression for peaceful action, and especially lack of response to the staffing crisis, not to mention no AC, and the fact that unit A-West is completely closed for lead contamination. We are dealing with a toxic building, and an administration refusing to find real solutions for its staff and the incarcerated people in its care. We need ongoing meetings to create and implement solutions not a media focused cover up.”

Water testing

In regards to the water testing, Skoogman said that “monthly and yearly water test results, conducted by a third-party lab and the Minnesota Department of Health” have consistently shown the water at the prison doesn’t pose a health risk and that testing for the “five main types of water contaminants have consistently met or exceeded federal and state water quality requirements.”

However, this week’s testing will also determine the “specific levels and types of sediments, such as iron, rust and manganese” in the water, Skoogman said, noting that the water comes form a well and that because of that it “is not uncommon for well water to have sediments.”

This will be first type the sediment analysis will be done, Skoogman said.

Prisoners complained in recent weeks that the water at the prison is brown. Loved ones outside the prison said that often inmates will get out of the ice machines and let that melt because water coming into the ice machines has a filter. In addition, some inmates will use socks or other materials to filter the water before they drink it.

“We recognize there are sediments in the well water which can at times affect clarity with a reddish-brown tint,” said Skoogman, who added the testing will include water from cell faucets. “It’s important to point out that although the water may be unclear, it has not been deemed unsafe through the routine third party water testing.”

The results of this week’s testing will be used to help the DOC “identify and implement its long-term water filtration strategy. The agency has initiated contracting with a consultant to analyze and further define its water filtration methods.”

Skoogman said there have been no reports of water-related illnesses among staff or the incarcerated population at the prison.

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