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Faith Groups Try to Send Bottled Water to Prisoners

Troubling levels of lead and copper reported at Waupun and Fox Lake prisons

Aug. 16, 2016
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Photo via alamosbasement, Flickr CC

The faith-based social justice organization WISDOM and its allies are supporting prisoners at Waupun and Fox Lake correctional institutions by attempting to donate bottled water to them.

According to news reports and testimony from current and former inmates, the water is contaminated with lead and copper, making some inmates sick.

In April, Wisconsin Watch’s Dee J. Hall reported that inmates and staff at both Dodge County facilities have complained of drinking yellow or brown, foul-smelling and sediment-filled water, possibly due to aging pipes. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) ordered Fox Lake officials in 2014 to reduce the amount of lead and copper in that facility’s water, and Waupun’s lead and copper levels have also exceeded federal safety levels within the past decade, Hall reported.

Last Thursday, members of WISDOM and partner groups gathered at St. Francis of Assisi Parish on North Fourth Street to rally around the inmates and build support for solving Wisconsin’s mass incarceration crisis. As part of their Thirsting for Justice initiative, the groups accepted a truckload of donated bottled water, which they hoped to deliver to Waupun prisoners on Saturday.

But Wendel Hruska, executive director of Project Return, warned the packed church that Department of Corrections (DOC) policy prohibits donations of food or beverages for prisoners. Prisoners can buy a 24-bottle case of water for $7.60, according to Hall’s reporting.

“We are hoping—we are hoping—the Department of Corrections makes an exception because of the dire water availability in these institutions,” Hruska said Thursday night. “So we are still pushing forward with this.”


Prisons Refused Donated Water

Bernie Gonzalez, lead organizer for the Waukesha-based WISDOM affiliate SOPHIA, told the Shepherd on Monday that volunteers had attempted to donate a truckload of water to the Fox Lake and Waupun facilities on Saturday. At Waupun, Gonzalez was greeted by about 50 WISDOM allies who were rallying in support of the water donation. The water was refused at both locations. 

“To me, it’s just common sense that they should accept the water,” he told the Shepherd.

Gonzalez said the donated water would be given to those cleaning up the Sherman Park neighborhood following the weekend’s unrest and also donated to local churches to raise awareness of the water crisis in Wisconsin prisons.

Prior to the Saturday caravan to Waupun, DOC spokesman Tristan Cook confirmed to the Shepherd that the DOC “does not accept unsolicited donations of food or drink, including bottled water.”

Cook also stated that the water at the Waupun and Fox Lake facilities is safe to drink.

“Both Waupun Correctional Institution and Fox Lake Correctional Institution are following state and federal requirements of the federal Safe Drinking Water act to provide safe water for drinking, cooking and bathing,” Cook emailed. “Recent testing at both facilities has shown lead and copper levels are below action levels.”

Cook pointed to the DNR’s drinking water database, which appears to show that both Waupun’s and Fox Lake’s lead and copper levels are in compliance with safety regulations.


They’re Being Poisoned’

The DOC’s assurances that the water is safe were contradicted by recently released prisoners and their supporters Thursday night.

Carl Fields of Ex-Prisoners Organizing (EXPO), recently released from Oakhill Correctional Facility in Dane County, said he spent one year drinking contaminated water, which finally broke his spirit. He said that prisoners run the tap to try get clear water, but even the clear water contains substances meant to flush out the sediment. 

“The water was so bad, so polluted, that every 20 minutes when you turn on the faucet and it runs it’s brown and it’s so thick with metal and toxins that I think I might have cried twice when I was there,” Fields said.

Fields said that the guards knew that the water was unsafe but that the inmates did not. He called the contaminated prison water “our own Flint, Michigan, right here in Wisconsin and nobody knows about it.”

He said he had promised his fellow inmates that he would speak out about the water once he was released from prison.

“This kind of inhumane treatment has been going on for some time,” Fields said. “It’s not a secret. Everybody knows this.”

Former Fox Lake inmate James Morgan, re-entry coordinator for MOSES, WISDOM’s Madison affiliate, called the reports that inmates are forced to drink and use contaminated water “a lie.”

“They’re not being forced to drink contaminated water—they’re being poisoned,” Morgan said. “Human beings are being poisoned in our midst. And people are sitting back pretending like that’s not an issue. These are our brothers and sisters.”

He said all of us are impacted by the contaminated water when ex-offenders leave prison and return home.

“When they come home and they have nervous conditions and they have health conditions, they have rotting teeth and other deterioration of their bodies from having been forced—having been poisoned by the state of Wisconsin,” Morgan said.

Morgan said the prisons’ contaminated water reminded him of the infamous Tuskegee experiments, during which the U.S. Public Health Service failed to treat African American men for syphilis as part of a decades-long clinical study.

“I thought about what goes on behind doors when we don’t have powerful people in our communities who examine what they are doing and hold them accountable,” Morgan said.

The Aug. 11 meeting also explored the other issues WISDOM is addressing in the state’s criminal justice system, including the mass incarceration of African American males, overreliance on solitary confinement, not granting parole for those who are eligible and not granting compassionate release for older and seriously ill prisoners who pose no threat to society.

Rev. Willie Brisco, president of Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Change (MICAH) and co-vice president of WISDOM, urged attendees to hold their elected officials responsible for the state’s mass incarceration crisis. He said ex-prisoners should come out of the system “corrected, not infected.”

“Wisconsin has a bad reputation of electing the same officials over and over and over and over again, but we expect different results,” Brisco said. “What is that called?”

“Insanity,” the audience responded.

“I don’t want to be insane for the rest of my life,” Brisco continued. “I want to hold some officials accountable. Power concedes nothing without an ask. And Wisconsin, you need to get off your ask.”


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