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Women in New York jails complain about contaminated water after Hurricane Ida

The six-hour commute from her home to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility is not an easy trip for Donna Robinson, 66. But she knew she had to make the trip immediately when her daughter, who is incarcerated there, began to complain about the “contaminated” water.

“Not only her, but several others there said the water was difficult to drink,” Robinson, a resident of Buffalo, New York, said of her daughter, Al-Shariyfa Robinson, 46. “They said she tasted muddy and smelled foul. They didn’t have much bottled water at the commissary to buy. My daughter said her urine was so dark because she had been drinking bottled water for a week, I was literally in tears.

Several women incarcerated at both Bedford Hills, the state’s only maximum security prison for women, and Taconic Correctional Facility told NBC News that the water has been contaminated since Hurricane Ida hit hit the area on Sept. 1, dozens of women falling ill and scrambling to access bottled water.

Both facilities are located in the small hamlet of Bedford Hills, approximately 40 miles north of New York City. Ida’s remains hit the northeast with tornadoes and record rains and flooding from September 1. Organizers of the appeal to respond to the complaints say the water problems stem from the devastating storm. Women who have spoken are divided over whether they think the hurricane caused the water problem, but they all agree that authorities should do more to address it.

“The day after Hurricane Ida the water smelled foul,” said Brittany Austin, a Bedford Hills detainee. Austin is a member of the Bedford Hills Inmate Liaison Committee. “It smelled like a mixture of sulfur and copper and it tasted like dirt and chemicals. There was chatter about this all day. ”The committee checked with each accommodation to confirm if the water was contaminated. The members finally asked everyone not to drink the water without boiling it first.

Austin said that in the days following the storm, around 40 people showed up to the facility’s clinic complaining of stomach issues from drinking water, but were all fired. in their units without treatment.

In a city update on September 3, Kevin Winn, the City of Bedford’s public works commissioner, said the problem was likely caused by the city’s tipping between its water sources. He said the Bedford Consolidated Water District, which serves both facilities, went from its main water source, the Delaware Aqueduct, to its backup source, the Cross River Reservoir, on August 31 – just one day. before Ida slams the area. According to the update, the district returned to its main water source the next day after receiving “customer feedback on taste and odor issues.” The note pointed out that the water in the Cross River Reservoir may have higher levels of algae, and a particular taste and odor.

Winn confirmed the document and said the city does not monitor the water quality inside correctional facilities, but “I was advised by correctional staff earlier this week that the taste and the smell of the water had returned to normal.

Thomas Mailey, spokesperson for the New York City Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, said Ida had no impact on day-to-day operations, including medical care, at the facilities. Mailey did not confirm whether women in prisons had seen a doctor after drinking water, but said in a statement that any “incarcerated person who requests medical treatment is assessed and if necessary treated”. He added that the water is not contaminated and both water supplies have been tested and meet state water quality standards.

But those behind bars in institutions say it isn’t.

“Although officials repeatedly stated that there was no problem with the water, we asked several officers as well as members of the administration to drink it in front of us, to which all refused, ”said Kelly Harnett, who is in Bedford Hills. . She said that by Saturday the water quality had improved but still tasted and smelled foul.

A woman from Taconic, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said she and many of her peers were left with no options because the commissioner ran out of bottled water and only water boiling didn’t seem to help. And although the water improved slightly over the past week, she said, the staff made no effort to help the women.

“I feel like nobody cares,” the woman said, adding that she didn’t think Taconic officials were responsible for the water problem. “No one has checked on us or made up for the loss of fresh, clean, safe drinking water with free bottled water.”

As for Robinson, the concerned mother took a sample of the drinking water during her visit and said she plans to have it tested for contaminants. A strict directive prohibits people from sending bottled water inside the facilities, so, she said, she bought bottled water from the prison visiting room so her daughter could drink it during their visit.

Robinson is an organizer of Release Aging People in Prison, a grassroots organization that works to end mass incarceration and advocates for the release of elderly incarcerated people. She said the case only underscores the horrors incarcerated people face behind bars.

“We take a lot for granted. When I am at home I can drink as much cold water as I want, ”she said. “It’s only water and my daughter is denied drinking water. We need it to live! I prayed and cried.

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