The Illinois Department of Corrections misled the public on Legionella outbreak at several prisons

More than a dozen people stand on a sidewalk holding signs saying Water is a Human Right and other slogans

Grace Asiegbu

Activists hold signs at a press conference Dec. 8, 2021, outside Trinity United Church of Christ to demand that state officials investigate water issues at Stateville Correctional Center.

Illinois prison and health officials made misleading and inconsistent statements about a Legionella outbreak at several Illinois prisons last month, according to records and interviews with incarcerated people. Advocates and prison watchdogs say the inconsistencies highlight long-standing problems with accountability and oversight of the prison system’s water treatment practices.

The Illinois Department of Corrections and the Illinois Department of Public Health issued a joint press release March 11, saying Legionella bacteria had been detected in water at Stateville Correctional Center and Joliet Treatment Center, both in Joliet, during routine water testing. When inhaled into the lungs, Legionella can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially deadly form of pneumonia.

However, the Department of Corrections sent a different memo to incarcerated people, which said the bacteria had been found at Stateville and the Northern Reception and Classification Center, another prison facility in Joliet, according to a copy of the memo sent to Injustice Watch.

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Department officials have since acknowledged that Legionella was actually found at five prison facilities, including the three facilities in Joliet, Kewanee Life-Skills Re-Entry Center and Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, which was first reported by The Appeal. Records provided by the department show that testing was done Feb. 24 at Graham, March 1 at the three Joliet prisons, and March 3 at Kewanee.

Camile Lindsay, the department’s chief of staff, did not directly respond to questions about why the two statements were different or why Graham and Kewanee were left off the press statement altogether.

The press release from state officials also said no one at the prisons had shown symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease, which can include cough, fever, headaches, and nausea.

But Joseph Dole, who has been incarcerated since 2000 and lives inside Unit Charlie, one of the cell blocks at Stateville where officials said Legionella was found, said he wasn’t tested or brought to the infirmary until after the press release went out.

“I had a severe headache and cough from Monday [March 7] through Friday and then serious stomach problems from Thursday through Saturday,” Dole told Injustice Watch in an email. When he saw a nurse, he said she told him that she wasn’t aware that Legionella had been found in the prison’s water system. “She was like, ‘It would have been nice if they gave us the memo too, that way we would know to keep an eye out for symptoms,’” he said.

In an emailed statement, Lindsay said, “The people who may have come into contact with the water from the positive water sources were monitored and/or tested unless they refused testing.”

Dole also questioned the department’s claim that they turned off the water in the areas where Legionella was found, saying the water in his unit was never turned off or flushed.

“Any time they shut off the water, at least one of the 250+ men in here will holler that they shut off the water, and everyone will continue hollering it until everyone hears, even if it is the middle of the night,” Dole said. That’s because the prison typically shuts off water when the tactical team is going to storm the cell house, so prisoners won’t flush contraband, he said. Dole said that didn’t happen in the week when prison officials said Legionella was found.

Legionella is a bacteria that occurs naturally in fresh water sources, such as lakes and rivers, and is usually treated with chlorine. After the bacteria grows and multiplies in a water system, it can spread in droplets small enough for people to breathe in, which can cause Legionnaires’ disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Recurrence of Legionella typically indicates low chlorine residuals or poor flushing practices within a building,” said Andrea Cheng, commissioner for the Chicago Department of Water Management, who holds a doctorate in environmental engineering.

Water safety and quality issues have plagued the Illinois Department of Corrections for years. In 2015, a man incarcerated at Stateville was hospitalized with Legionnaires’ disease, and in 2020, two people at Pontiac Correctional Center had to be taken to the hospital for the infection.

In December, Injustice Watch reported that people inside Stateville prison complained that the water was brown, murky, and had a foul odor. At the time, prison officials said in a statement elevated levels of lead and copper had been found in “just a few nonresidential areas” of the prison, and that they had been providing filtered water to incarcerated people.

Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, a legal aid organization that works on prison conditions, said the state “doesn’t fix things until they’re forced to,” and many of the state’s prisons are “ancient.”

“Our three maximum security prisons — Menard, Stateville, and Pontiac — are all at least 100 years old,” he said. “They need a lot of maintenance if you’re going to continue to run them. And we’re not doing it and haven’t been doing it for years and years and years.”

Uptown People’s Law Center filed a lawsuit against the department in February on behalf of people incarcerated at the Northern Reception Center alleging that the living conditions inside are “inhumane and unconstitutional.” The lawsuit claims that prison officials did not supply prisoners at the NRC with bottled water on a consistent basis, in addition to other problems, such as vermin infestations and sewage backing up into showers, toilets, and kitchens. The corrections department has not yet filed a formal response to the complaint.

The John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, has documented complaints about the standard of living at Illinois prison facilities for years, including issues related to water quality.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, the organization’s executive director, said society’s overall attitude toward the incarcerated is partly to blame for the concerning living conditions inside jails and prisons.

“I think at the end of the day, the culture in both Illinois and throughout the rest of the country is that people think people that are in prison are ‘there for a reason.’ And you know, they have a punishment mindset,” Vollen-Katz said.

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