Beside a field of rolling tumbleweed in this remote Central Valley town, the state opened its newest prison in 2005 with a modern design, cutting-edge security features and a serious environmental problem.
The drinking water pumped from two wells at Kern Valley State Prison contained arsenic, a known cause of cancer, in amounts far higher than a federal safety standard soon to take effect.
Yet today, nearly three years after missing the government's deadline to reduce the arsenic levels, the state has no concrete plans or funding to do so. Officials spent $629,000 to design a filtration system and then decided not to build it, while neglecting to inform staff and inmates that they were consuming contaminated water.
After the prison finally posted notices last April on orders from the state Department of Public Health, the inmates continued drinking the water, under protest.
"We have no choice," said Larry Tillman, 38, who was serving time for burglary. "We should at the very least receive bottled water, or truck in water from another city."
Most correctional officers at Kern Valley State Prison take bottled water to work -- some say they prefer it anyway -- but administrators created a form letter to reject requests for alternative water from some of the 4,800 inmates. The administrators say the health hazard from arsenic, a chemical used in industry and farming, is insignificant, and they promise to filter the water some time in the next few years.
"It's not that major of an issue," said Kelly Harrington, the prison's new warden.
But long-term exposure to arsenic, common in Central Valley communities, has been linked to cancer of the lungs, skin, kidneys, liver and bladder and to other maladies.
The situation, critics say, is emblematic of the short-sighted planning and creeping pace of the mammoth prison bureaucracy as it struggles to house 170,000 of California's most undesired residents.
The state has placed many of its lockups far from major cities, in rural areas with nothing as far as the eye can see, where they are embraced by residents desperate for jobs and commerce. But officials have sometimes ignored health threats endemic to these regions.
Between 1987 and 1994, the state built four prisons in a part of the Central Valley known as a hotbed of valley fever, a sometimes severe infection that usually affects the lungs. Health experts estimate that the state has spent millions to treat inmates for the disease, spawned by a fungus in desert soil.
In 2007, the year after five inmates died from valley fever, the state proposed expanding five prisons in the Central Valley but later backed off on two of the sites. One proposed expansion site, Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, had an outbreak that sickened 520 prisoners in 2006. A Fresno County grand jury concluded last year that the prison, built in 1994, should not have been put there.
At the California Institution for Women in Chino, the state has been buying bottled water for prisoners for five years -- at a current annual cost of $480,000 -- because of nitrate levels that violate federal standards in the water supply to the facility and to the nearby California Institution for Men. Nitrates, which are chemical compounds that often get into soil from fertilizer and manure, can cause a blood disorder in fetuses and infants.
Chino-area municipalities have built systems to filter their own water, and the state hopes to complete a similar project a year from now for both the women's and men's prisons. But Chino Mayor Dennis Yates, who says sewage from the men's prison has long polluted the Santa Ana River, is skeptical of state officials' competence.
"Even if you do give them money, they don't do anything," Yates said. "It's just a huge, bloated bureaucracy."
In 2001, four years before Kern Valley prison opened, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered a reduction in the maximum level of arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10. Water suppliers had until Jan. 23, 2006, to meet the new standard. Recent testing has shown the arsenic level in one prison well at 23 parts per billion and the other at 15.
One day this month, in a low-slung white building with blue doors known as Facility C, prisoners bunking in a crowded gymnasium drank from the water fountain and used water from the sinks to make their soup. Some newcomers said they had not been told about the contamination upon arrival at the prison.
"I just came from an institution where the water was just atrocious, definitely foul," said Ramon Diaz, 25, who had three years remaining on a sentence for drug dealing. "This to me is like spring water here, and you come to find out that it's not the way it should be, either."
Corrections Department officials said they could not explain why a filtration system was not included in the prison's design because most of the employees who worked on it had since left. Later, the agency developed plans to add a filtration plant. It obtained $2.5 million from lawmakers for that purpose in 2006.
But planners abandoned the idea, electing instead to incorporate the project into an overall prison expansion approved by lawmakers. Flaws in the legislation have postponed the expansion indefinitely.
State project manager Gary Lewis said the filtration plant is in the "conceptual study phase."
This year the EPA has ordered 11 California water systems to reduce excessive arsenic levels. One was the city of Delano, which serves the North Kern State Prison, a few miles from Kern Valley prison. On Dec. 12, after inquiries by The Times, the state public health department ordered Kern Valley State Prison to come up with a plan by February to comply with the arsenic law.
The prison's chief medical officer, Dr. Sherry Lopez, said there was no immediate danger from the lockup's water, based on an e-mail she received in April from a poison-control expert who said arsenic is "much more a regulatory problem than a public health problem."
"It kind of reassured me and everybody else here that everything is OK," Lopez said.
But Dr. Gina Solomon, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said that the law is important and that disempowered populations, such as prisoners and poor rural workers, often suffer because of lax enforcement.
"The standard was set for a reason, and the reason is that arsenic is known to cause cancer in humans," she said. "So the clock is ticking. The longer that people are drinking the water, the higher the risk."
Many of Kern Valley's prisoners are serving life terms, but even those with shorter stints are worried.
"It's definitely a concern for us if there's an abundance of arsenic in the water and we're ingesting that," said Dylan Littlefield, 36, an inmate from Hollywood with five years remaining for attempted robbery and drug dealing. "Who knows if we're going to be treated properly?"
The healthcare system in the state's prisons has been turned over to a federal receiver by a judge who said substandard treatment has caused many needless deaths behind bars. The receiver, J. Clark Kelso, was not alerted to the arsenic problem by the state, his top aide said.
"We're concerned about the potential health risks and we have to look into it," said John Hagar, the receiver's chief of staff. "Constructing facilities that are inadequate from the beginning is unfortunately part of a long-standing trend with the Department of Corrections, so I'm not surprised."
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What is arsenic?
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in rocks, soil and water.
Industrial, in wood preservatives and some paints and dyes
Agricultural, in some fertilizers and animal feed
Ingestion of high levels can lead to death.
Lower levels can cause nausea, vomiting and darkening of the skin.
Long-term ingestion of unsafe amounts may increase the risk of some cancers.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services