Your Donation Will Be Doubled. Support Today!

Illinois Advocates Call for Action After Prison Officials Mislead on Contaminated Water

Legionella bacteria was found in five Illinois prisons in March.

stateville correctional center
Stateville Correctional Center, in Crest Hill, Illinois.Photo via Rw2/Wikipedia.

Community members are condemning the Illinois Department of Corrections for housing people in unsafe conditions after Legionella bacteria was found in five state prisons last month, with some expressing concern that state officials have misled the public about the extent of the contamination. 

On March 11, IDOC and the Illinois Department of Public Health released a joint press release announcing that Legionella bacteria had been detected in two prisons—Stateville Correctional Center and Joliet Treatment Center. Legionella is the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially fatal type of pneumonia.

But in response to The Appeal’s questions, an IDOC spokesperson confirmed that water in a total of five prisons had tested positive for Legionella in March. Lab reports provided to The Appeal show that test results for those facilities were returned between March 4 and March 11—all on or before the date of the press release. In addition to Stateville and Joliet, the bacteria was also found in Graham Correctional Center, Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, and Stateville Northern Reception and Classification Center (Stateville NRC).

In the March 11 press release, IDOC said it had immediately halted the use of impacted areas and flushed out water to remove the bacteria. During a second round of testing on the contaminated water sources conducted late last month, officials again found Legionella in Kewanee and Stateville, according to lab reports IDOC shared with The Appeal. The bacteria was not detected in Graham, Stateville NRC, or Joliet. (The lab reports for Stateville NRC and Kewanee appear to list incorrect collection dates for the second sample.)

IDOC declined to explain to The Appeal why it included only two prisons in its first press release. The Illinois Department of Public Health did not respond to requests for comment. 

“I’m appalled that the IDOC seems to be more concerned with covering up the problem than with protecting the health of the people in their custody,” said Shari Stone-Mediatore, managing director of Parole Illinois, an organization that advocates for a fairer parole process, in an email to The Appeal.Exposure to deadly diseases in their drinking water and showers is not part of people’s prison sentence.”

The press release also lacked other critical context. Although the statement touted the department’s “quarterly testing” for the bacteria, it omitted the fact that the department only began testing for the bacteria in January. 

During the first round of testing, Legionella was found in over 20 percent of Illinois prisons where testing and analysis has been completed. Testing has yet to be conducted at nearly half of all IDOC facilities. 

IDOC’s initial statement fits a broader pattern of “fake transparency” from the department, said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, calling it “an attempt at transparency without really being transparent.”

According to IDOC, no one who came into contact with the contaminated water has shown symptoms or tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease. 

Some advocates are concerned that too few water sources were tested and the problem may be more widespread. The University of Illinois tested four water sources at each facility where the bacteria was detected, according to lab reports. To understand the full scale of the bacteria’s presence in a facility, officials should test at least 10 water samples from different floors and wings across the building’s water distribution system, according to Janet E. Stout, executive vice president of Special Pathogens Laboratory, a Pennsylvania-based water testing service that specializes in Legionella contamination.

Legionella bacteria can move from water to a person’s lungs through two primary methods. It can be breathed in through droplets of water—while taking a shower, for instance—or through aspiration, when water is swallowed and “goes down the wrong pipe” and into the lungs, said Stout. Person-to-person transmission of Legionnaires’ may be possible but is extremely unlikely, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Contaminated showers are a “big concern,” explained Aaron Packman, director of the Northwestern Center for Water Research. Showers were not tested at any of the prisons, according to IDOC.

Comprehensive water management systems can reduce bacterial growth, and improved air filtration systems can help reduce transmission of airborne infectious diseases, according to Packman. 

Even if a disinfectant is used to treat contaminated water, it may not completely eliminate bacteria from a building’s water system—particularly if it contains stagnant, warm water, according to Packman. 

“It’s such a ubiquitous problem,” said Packman. “There’s no way to completely eradicate Legionella and keep it out of the system.”

“These facilities are old—they’re in horrific disrepair.”

Kelly Cassidy Illinois state representative

For years, people inside Illinois state prisons have struggled to access clean water. In the 1990s, radium was found in Stateville’s water at almost twice the level permitted by federal guidelines. In 2013, people at Stateville reported water that was “discolored and has a strange taste.” One person at Stateville was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ in 2015, and in 2020, two people incarcerated in Illinois’ Pontiac Correctional Center contracted the disease.

According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners in February, the sink water in cells at the Stateville NRC smells “like sewage and has a faint, brown color.” Test results returned on March 9 showed that Legionella bacteria was detected in three of the four water sources tested at the prison, according to a lab report provided to The Appeal. But IDOC and the state health department omitted Stateville NRC from their March 11 press release.

Mills, of the Uptown People’s Law Center, one of the law firms that filed the suit, said he was unaware that Legionella bacteria had been found at the prison until he read The Appeal’s reporting. 

Local activists are now calling for greater oversight of the state’s prisons. Katrina Baugh, campaign strategy manager with Parole Illinois, told The Appeal that the Illinois Department of Public Health should create a unit within the agency that is tasked with monitoring and investigating public health conditions inside the state’s prisons, including the presence of contaminated water.

For all the prison system’s focus on “safety and security,” Baugh said, this would send an important message that “part of promoting safety and enacting justice is meeting people’s basic needs.”

Lawmakers are also working to improve transparency at the IDOC. Last month, the state House unanimously approved a bill that would give legislators greater access to the state’s prisons. The proposal appears to have stalled in the Senate. 

Illinois state Representative Kelly Cassidy told The Appeal that she introduced the legislation after IDOC did not allow her to visit a prison last summer.

“I don’t want to see the housing unit that is cleaned up for visitors,” she said. “If I’m getting concerns about black mold, I would like to be shown exactly where this person lives.”

Cassidy said her office frequently gets complaints about water in the state’s prisons, and applauded IDOC for proactively testing for Legionella bacteria.

“These facilities are old—they’re in horrific disrepair,” she said. “We’re now reaping the harvest of deferred maintenance.”

Read the test results from IDOC: