Blame the drought: Inmates sweat out the ban on prison yard showers


To save water, California has turned off outside showers on its inmates.

No longer can they wash down in the prison yard after a hard workout.

“Yes, all showers outside of those in the housing units have been shut down as part of the statewide mandate to reduce water use by 25% due to the drought,” Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, confirmed Thursday.

Open-air showers are a common fixture of California prison yards, whether in the large open spaces of minimum-security lockups or the high-walled chain-link pens used by condemned men at San Quentin.

The state’s 121,000 prisoners still have access to showers on their cellblocks and can take spit baths by the sinks in their cells. In high-security settings where inmate movement is restricted, prisoners are offered access to those showers three days a week.


A drought restrictions memo sent out by headquarters in Sacramento requires those showers to be limited to five minutes, though kitchen workers will be allowed to wash down daily. Prison “drought conservation managers” also instructed to shut down water fountains, check flow-meters on toilets, and stop hosing down sidewalks.

The outdoor shower shutoff has its roots in Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order in April that urban water agencies cut their water use by 25%.

In a spoof drought campaign run by activists, comedians and other entertainers to draw attention to the lack of restrictions on agriculture, Californians are directed to ease their drought-ridden guilt by forgoing 26 showers for every 4-ounce patty of beef they consume.

“We all need to think outside the box,” entertainer Moby extols in a cameo posted at

“One way to have prisoners use less water is to have less prisoners,” quipped Mike Bonanno (the alias of Igor Vamos and one half of comedic activist duo The Yes Men) in a telephone interview. “The real comedy here is that showering is less than a drop in the bucket, is miniscule, compared to industrial agriculture.”

But lawyers for inmates aren’t laughing.

The aqua austerity in prison yards is included in a lawsuit alleging inhumane conditions on California’s death row, alongside complaints about the prolonged use of solitary confinement, inadequate food and a lack of due process.


“Despite the exposure, plaintiffs utilize the shower in the yard as it is the only way absent a doctor’s order that they are able to take a near daily shower,” inmates’ attorney Daniel Siegel wrote in the class action case filed several weeks ago in federal court in Oakland.

With those taps dry, he wrote, his clients “are denied the hygienic practice of washing off sweat after a workout.”

Twitter: @paigestjohn