Inmates say prison is making them ill H. PYLORI: Twenty are found to suffer from the bacterium, which can lead to ulcers
August 4, 2004 By STEFANIE FRITH / The Press-Enterprise
Inmates at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco are placing tube socks over showerheads to filter debris out of the water. Others say they have stopped washing their faces to prevent red rashes. Some refuse to drink the tap water or eat food made in the prison's kitchens.
In the past few months, about 20 inmates have been diagnosed with Helicobacter pylori, a spiral-shaped bacterium that nestles into the lining of the stomach and causes bloating, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and bloody or black stools, said Dr. Sarv Grover, chief medical officer at CRC. The minimum- to medium-security prison has been testing for the bacterium for two years and recently sent a memo to its staff and 4,600 male and female inmates to educate them on the illness, he said. The memo states that to protect themselves from H. pylori, they need to have good personal hygiene, eat food that has been properly prepared and drink water from a safe, clean water source.
If untreated, H. pylori can lead to ulcers and stomach cancers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Silvia Flores / The Press-Enterprise
"We came to prison to do time, not to be contaminated," former inmate Tina Perez says. Released July 4, she is still ill, she says.
"My son takes a sock to filter the water before taking a shower," said Cleone Merrill, a Sacramento resident whose 41-year-old son is incarcerated at the prison. "He said the water is so dark, and others are putting socks up now too."
Some inmates, their family members and prison advocates believe the symptoms are caused by contaminated water flowing through the prison's plumbing. Others wonder whether they are the result of unsanitary conditions in the kitchens, bathrooms and dormitories.
Prison officials say they test the water twice weekly and insist it is clean. Grover said the inmates' concerns are exaggerated.
Petitions are circulating among inmates' families to force the prison to take the necessary steps to avoid contamination altogether.
"There are thousands of inmates statewide who are infected with H. pylori," said Judy Greenspan, a representative of California Prison Focus, an advocacy group for inmates. Greenspan specializes in health issues for the organization and tours prisons on a regular basis.
"I think it's coming from the prison kitchens, and the cells are dirty," she said. "The conditions they live in are pretty bad."
Grover said much of the alarm comes from a lack of information. "It's like when you sit with a group and someone says they have symptoms of something, then you start to think you have symptoms of that too."
Former inmate Tina Perez, who was released from CRC on July 4 after serving about one year for child endangerment, said she began showing signs of H. pylori about four months into her incarceration. The 38-year-old woman has not been tested but plans to be in the next few weeks, she said.
Perez, who has been staying with friends and family in Buena Park and Diamond Bar, said she gets sharp, shooting pains in her stomach and has soft bowel
"We came to prison to do time, not to be contaminated," she said.
Grover said he figures those inmates who do have the bacterium were infected in childhood, when they didn't wash their hands. He added that many inmates come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and never received proper medical care as children.
The prison once relied on well water that, when combined with the institution's aging plumbing, had a brown color but tested negative for H. pylori.
A year ago, the prison was hooked up to the city of Norco's water system. Grover said that since that time, he had not seen an increase in the number of inmate patients coming to him with symptoms of H. pylori.
There might still be some discoloration, but the prison's water is "germ-free," he said.
The prison's water is tested twice a week and continues to come back negative for H. pylori, said Lt. Tim Shirlock, prison spokesman. The water is also treated with chlorine to keep the pipes free of germs.
"They think, 'Oh, it's bad because it's discolored,' " said Grover. "But they are not getting sicker because of this water. The water is clean."
On a recent tour of the prison, water in administrative offices, men's and women's dorms and inmate kitchens ran cloudy and fizzy when first dispensed, but it became clear after settling inside a plastic bottle.
Many of the restrooms in the men's dormitory were corroding, missing tiles and had holes in the walls and floors. There was mildew on the walls. Some pipes were exposed and rusty, and others were covered with green deposits. The air was musty and humid.
The water in the women's restrooms was also full of bubbles when it came out of the taps and showerheads and smelled of chlorine.
The facility was built in 1928 as the Lake Norconian Club, a luxury hotel. It later became a military hospital and was converted into a prison in 1962. Last year, the state prison began a $50 million dorm-replacement project, but budget cuts and talk of closing the institution halted the construction.
Barbara Cole, director of disease control for the Riverside County Department of Public Health, said her office has received a few complaints about the water at the prison.
"We are aware there are concerns," Cole said. County officials, however, are unable to do anything about health concerns at the prison unless prison officials invite them in to do testing or they are bombarded with complaints, she added.
Inmate Jesus Velez, a convicted armed robber, said many inmates, upon incarceration at CRC, develop allergies, rashes, insect and spider bites and weakened immune systems. The crowded conditions make sanitation difficult, he said.
"Inmates don't have a choice of where they get to go to prison," said Lillian Fossa, Perez's aunt. "Yes, you have to lock them up. But you shouldn't be releasing them with a ... disease."