Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, has been detected in the water at five correctional facilities in the past 12 months, the Illinois Department of Corrections confirmed to The Appeal.
The contaminated water was found during routine quarterly testing at Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet Treatment Center, Graham, Kewanee, and Stateville Northern Reception and Classification Center.
State officials told The Appeal that as of March 15, no one was exhibiting symptoms of the disease—a potentially fatal type of pneumonia.
When asked if all prison water supplies were tested for legionella on a quarterly basis, Illinois DOC Chief of Staff Camile Lindsay told The Appeal in an email that the department tests only “a sample size of water sources” at each facility.
At Stateville, after one positive sample was gathered from a cell, a second sample from a separate cell in the same unit was tested and was negative for legionella. The department did not test any other cells in the unit, Ms. Lindsay wrote, and the only other sources tested were sinks in the “healthcare” and “dietary” units, which came back negative.
The Appeal reported yesterday that, in a second round of testing on the contaminated water sources conducted in late March, officials again found legionella in Kewanee and Stateville.
Outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease have been reported at prisons in California, Indiana, New Jersey, and Connecticut, according to The Appeal.
In Illinois, two people incarcerated at the Pontiac Correctional Center were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease in 2020, and a person incarcerated at Stateville was also diagnosed with the disease in 2015. All three were hospitalized.
Complaints about contaminated water in Illinois prisons are longstanding and go beyond legionella, The Appeal reports. In the 1990s, Stateville’s water was found to contain almost twice the level of radium permitted by federal guidelines.
People incarcerated at Stateville have been reporting that the water is discolored and has a strange taste since at least 2013. Extremely elevated levels of copper and lead were found in seven locations tested at the prison in October 2021.
In December 2021, protesters gathered outside Stateville to demand clean water. Injustice Watch reported that the water problems had reached crisis levels as supply chain issues and contract disputes created a shortage of bottled water in the prison commissary, where people who can afford it purchase drinking water. Advocates delivered more than 62,000 bottles of water to the prison during the protest.
The following month, a report from the Chicago Reader said that the company responsible for testing Stateville’s water for lead did not follow federal protocols and failed to test kitchen or cell faucets.
And in February, The Appeal reports, a lawsuit was filed alleging that the sink water in cells at the Northern Reception and Classification Center smells “like sewage and has a faint, brown color.”
Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, which filed the Northern Reception suit, told The Appeal that corroding pipes can contribute to the growth of legionella bacteria.
As the state’s prisons age, the corrections department should be doing regular, system-wide testing of water sources, Mr. Mills said.