The Problem of Prison Waste

When a prison doubles its population, its resources and ability to handle waste are stretched thin. One central California town is dealing with the environmental consequences of overcrowding in the prison system.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

You know that overcrowding causes all sorts of problems inside the walls of prisons. Sometimes it creates problems outside those walls.

From member station KQED in San Francisco, Tamara Keith reports about the environmental impact of one prison.

TAMARA KEITH: Mule Creek opened in 1987, built to house 1,700 inmates. Now, it has 4,000. Ray Iserch(ph), correctional plant manager at the prison, remembers taking down the basketball hoops in this gymnasium in the early 1990s.

Mr. RAY ISERCH (Correctional Plant Manager, Mule Creek State Prison): And this has over 200 inmates in it.

KEITH: There are rows and rows of metal bunks, each stacked with three beds. There's no privacy at all. One inmate ties a bandana over his eyes to try and sleep. There are two more gymnasiums like this one at the prison. And many dayrooms are overflowing with bunks.

(Soundbite of rushing water)

KEITH: Behind the prison, the sewerage treatment plant is overloaded. Brown waste water pours into an oxidation ditch, one of the first steps in the treatment process. Iserch says there's no doubt this plant is dealing with more waste water than is allowed by its state permit.

Mr. ISERCH: Well, I'm almost positive we're flowing above the level we're supposed to be.

KEITH: The system is being forced so far beyond its capacity that untreated waste water and solids have been released from the plant. There have also been accidental spills into Mule Creek, a creek that runs through the prison grounds. Downstream from the prison, Virginia Silva(ph) and her husband live on a small cattle ranch.

Ms. VIRGINIA SILVA (Resident, Cattle Ranch near Mule Creek): We don't like it. It wasn't our idea. And it's just too bad that the people responsible for that mess aren't the ones that are hit with it.

KEITH: Silva doesn't have it as bad as some other Ione residents. Her well water is still safe to drink. Recent tests of three other wells near the prison registered such high levels of nitrates, they violate state drinking water standards. Health officials haven't been able to directly link it to the prison, but they suspect its waste water problems are the source. Community leaders and residents say they feel duped. George Lambert is interim city administrator for Ione. He says the town agreed to a 1,700-bed prison, not 4,000 inmates and a pollution problem.

Mr. GEORGE LAMBERT (Interim City Administrator, Ione): We don't want a large, almost a large industry like that to be sitting in the middle of our community and polluting.

KEITH: And Mule Creek's problems are not isolated. There are many other prisons around the state with similar waste water issues. Chris Swanberg is the environmental lawyer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Mr. CHRIS SWANBERG (Environmental Lawyer, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): We don't want to be bad neighbors. We don't want to pollute. And it's not that we don't care. It's just that we've got too many inmates and not enough infrastructure to handle it.

KEITH: At Mule Creek, they're working on temporary fixes. Waste water managers are using a chemical additive that's helping the sewage break down. And they're hoping soon to install smart showers and toilets to force water conservation. But Mule Creek warden Richard Subia says that doesn't get at the fundamental problem: overcrowding.

Mr. RICHARD SUBIA (Warden, Mule Creek State Prison): Our prisons weren't built to handle this flow. They just were not. The more we tax our infrastructure, the more problems you're going to see.

KEITH: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed spending $300 million to upgrade waste water systems at Mule Creek and other state prisons as part of a prison reform package. He's been trying for the last year to get through the legislature.

For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith.

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