Blanca Gonzalez’s son spent years at California’s Kern Valley State Prison, where she says he was sickened by the foul water he was forced to drink – water that the state knows is contaminated with arsenic, a carcinogen that can cause serious skin damage and circulatory system problems. And she wanted to do something about it.
But where to start? For years California officials have been promising to fix the facility’s water problem – promising to provide its more than 5,000 inhabitants water that meets the standards of the EPA and World Health Organization. And for years they have failed to deliver, extending and then extending again their self-imposed deadlines for when they “anticipate” resolving the issue; indeed, just this year the supposed deadline for installing water treatment equipment has been extended from October 2011 to February 2012 – and then again to August 2012.
After reading an article last fall about Kern Valley State Prison’s dirty water, Gonzalez contacted your humble criminal justice editor here at Change.org, asking that I write more about the problem. And for weeks … well, I didn’t – hey, I’m a busy guy, alright? But after a few more friendly reminders, her persistence paid off. And now her campaign is drawing the attention of California’s top prison officials.
California officials first learned that the water at Kern Valley State Prison was contaminated with arsenic – twice the level considered safe by the World Health Organization – soon after the facility opened in 2005. Now one of the top prison officials in the state tells Change.org the problem will be fixed.
The problem with that, though? We’ve heard it before.
In December 2008, the prison’s warden at the time, Anthony Hedgpeth, issued a memo pledging action to fix the contaminated water problem. “We anticipate resolving the problem by June 2009,” the memo stated, noting that exposure to arsenic can cause skin damage and circulatory system problems, as well as increase the risk one will develop cancer. Indeed, according to the EPA, long-term arsenic exposure can cause “cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidneys, nasal passages, liver and prostate.”
Arsenic contamination is a particular population when dealing with a captive population – like the more than 5,000 men incarcerated at Kern Valley State Prison – that can’t switch to bottled water or other alternative sources of water.
But despite the pledge to address the issue … nothing happened.
John T. Williams was given just four seconds to comply with an order to drop the legal knife he was carrying for his trade before he was shot and killed by Officer Ian Birk last August — one, two, three, dead. But even though the Seattle Police Department is expected to rule that the officer’s decision to pull the trigger was unjustified, King County prosecutors are announcing they will not be pursuing criminal charges over the fatal shooting.
Such is one of the perks of wearing a uniform, it seems: you can kill a man in a shooting that even your own employers won’t stand behind, and the worst that can happen is you’ll lose your job – though even that hasn’t happened yet.
A 50-year-old Native American, Williams was well known in Seattle for his skill as a woodcarver. When Officer Birk shot him dead on August 30 of last year, he was merely crossing the street with a wooden board and the 3” knife he used to carve – not only did he not commit an offense deserving of death, he didn’t break any law. And according to eyewitnesses, he never rushed Officer Birk or so much as adopted an aggressive posture, contrary to the police department’s initial claims.
There was no physical evidence linking Courtney Bisbee to a crime, just the incomplete and inconsistent testimony of child witnesses who claimed they saw her engage in inappropriate touching with a 13 year old boy. And it was based on that testimony alone that she was convicted in 2006 of child molestation and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Bisbee, a 35-year-old mother and former school nurse, was prosecuted by the office of disgraced District Attorney Andrew Thomas, the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation who has been accused by the Arizona State Bar of having engaged in at least 33 ethical violations while in office, from abuse of power to prosecutorial misconduct. Thomas is also perhaps best known for prosecuting a 16-year-old boy as a child sex offender for allegedly showing a Playboy to two of his friends.
In January 2007, the case against Bisbee – already thin – began to unravel, as journalist Stephen Lemons reported in a comprehensive piece for The Phoenix New Times. Indeed, one of the prosecution’s “star” witnesses, Nik Valles, signed an affidavit stating that he was forced to lie on the stand – forced to say his brother, Jon, was groped by Bisbee at a friend’s house – by his mother, who he says put him up to it in order to cash-in from a lawsuit against the school where Bisbee worked.
For more than five years, prisoners at Kern Valley State Prison have been forced to drink water that the state of California knows is laced with arsenic, a known carcinogen. And for more than five years, officials have chosen not to do anything about it.
They have, however, talked about how they “anticipate” doing something about it.
In an April 2008 memo to incarcerated men and employees at the facility, located in Delano, California, then-warden Anthony Hedgpeth noting that the prison’s drinking water contained roughly twice the level of arsenic permitted by the EPA. “This is not an emergency,” the memo stated, even as it proceeded to note that drinking the water over an extended period – like, say, a prisoner with no other options – may cause “skin damage or circulatory system problems,” in addition to causing cancer.
Randy Steidl was a poster child for the death penalty, the kind of man supporters of state executions could point to as a criminal – convicted in 1987 of murdering a newlywed couple in Illinois and burning down their home with their bodies in it – who clearly deserved the ultimate punishment.
In the years following his conviction, Steidl’s guilt was repeatedly reaffirmed by Illinois judges, with even the state Supreme Court upholding his death sentence. No one could say he didn’t receive a fair chance at justice, that he had not been given amble opportunity to make his case in court.
There was just one problem with pointing to Steidl as a case study in why we need capital punishment: he was innocent. In 2004, nearly two decades after being tried and found guilty of a double homicide, Illinois prosecutors dropped all charges against Steidl, a move that came after the key witnesses during his trial repeatedly recanted their testimony against him.
When the University of California, Irvine (UCI) last year asked the ambassador of a government widely considered to be guilty of war crimes to deliver a lecture on campus, student activists upset over their tuition money being used to provide him a platform for propaganda staged a protest, shouting phrases like “murder is not free speech,” that ultimately prevented the lecture from being delivered.
Had the ambassador been from, say, Sudan, and had he rationalizing the slaughter of civilians in Darfur, the students would likely be heralded as heroes who bravely stood up for their beliefs. But he wasn’t: the ambassador, Michael Oren, was from Israel. And so last week Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced he was pursuing criminal charges against the 11 UCI students for disrupting the speech – charges that could land them in jail.
In a February 4 statement, Rackauckas justified charging the students with “conspiring and disrupting a lawful assembly” by citing his duty to uphold the Constitution. “Freedom of speech is a precious constitutional right that goes to the heart of our democratic form of government,” he said.