Legionnaires’ outbreak grows, keeping San Quentin locked down

A cellblock at San Quentin State Prison in April. More than 80 inmates became sick with pneumonia during an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease. The bacteria was traced to the prison medical building.

A cellblock at San Quentin State Prison in April. More than 80 inmates became sick with pneumonia during an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease. The bacteria was traced to the prison medical building.

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

An environmental consultant has been brought into the hunt for the source of Legionnaires’ disease at San Quentin state prison. After six days of testing, officials still do not know what caused the outbreak that has left more than 100 inmates sick and the sprawling historic prison in near-lockdown.

Showers and drinking water have been shut off since a prisoner was diagnosed with the severe illness Thursday. In addition, prison officials said they are consulting daily with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the state health department.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 96 prisoners showed symptoms of infection and seven inmates had been hospitalized, though corrections and prison health officials said only six yet tested positive for the bacterium that causes Legionnaires’ disease. They said X-rays show 50 of the prisoners who are sick have some form of pneumonia.

The medical office that runs prison healthcare expects the caseload to grow.

“We’re still within the 10 day incubation period for Legionnaires’,” said Joyce Hayhoe, spokeswoman for California Correctional Health Care Services. “After 10 days, we may see the spike,” she said, referring to the point at which new cases should stop.


Because Legionnaires’ is caused by a water-borne bacterium, the state cannot resume full water service within the prison until the source of the infection is found, Hayhoe said.

At first, San Quentin shut off not only water for drinking, but also for cooking, showers and toilets.

By Friday the toilets were operable again, but because of concern of steam from heating food, the 3,700 inmates at San Quentin were put on a breakfast-lunch-dinner diet of peanut butter sandwiches. That was to end with Wednesday’s dinner.

Water trucks on some prison yards have allowed inmates to bathe. That is not the case for those on death row, where some 730 inmates have not had a shower for more than a week.

“We get those complaints, over and over and over again,” said Don Specter, lead attorney for the Prison Law Office, which represents California inmates in prison condition litigation, and who toured the San Quentin prison Tuesday.

Specter said he was told that because of the time required to confirm bacterial cultures in the lab, it may be 10 more days before prison officials trace the source of the disease.

Pneumonia cases have turned up in nearly every housing unit at the 160-year-old prison, a labyrinth of old and new plumbing and ventilation systems, requiring more than 40 locations to be tested. The prison’s water comes from the Marin Municipal Water District, which is conducting its own testing.

The California Appellate Project, which assists death row prisoners with their legal appeals, sent a letter to defense lawyers Tuesday raising concerns that inmates were not “taking this seriously enough.” The letter asked lawyers to encourage prisoners to report any symptoms of illness to medical staff as legal visits resumed Wednesday.

“Everyone is tired of eating peanut butter and jelly three times a day. Fair point,” the letter said, but noted using water to cook hot meals “is too dangerous at this time.”

Older people are most susceptible to Legionnaires’ disease, which is spread by inhaling water vapor containing the bacterium. A severe outbreak at a southern Illinois nursing home this week has left seven people dead and 32 others ill.

From 2009 to 2012, California reported 82 deaths attributed to the bacterium, according to the state Department of Public Health.