Publication Date

Summer 2022


People who are currently or formerly incarcerated in New York State prisons know that the water inside is often not safe to drink. However, when they advocate for access to clean water, they are regularly met with retaliation and denial.

This article brings together firsthand accounts, case law, and ongoing investigations regarding water quality in New York State prisons. Contaminated water is not an anomaly in prisons–it is one of many severe conditions that people in prison are forced to live under which threaten their physical, mental, and emotional health. The daily abuses and harms suffered by incarcerated people are normalized by prison officials, the courts, and accepted societal narratives around crime and punishment. This research was born of firsthand accounts shared by Ramon Henriquez, Phil Miller, and others who have survived or are currently surviving deplorable conditions of incarceration. Section II of the article presents writ- ten versions of two of these accounts, one written firsthand by Phil Miller, the other based on interviews between Shannon Haupt and Ramon Henriquez.

Section III summarizes the statutory mechanisms in place to monitor public water system compliance with Federal and State drinking water standards. Section IV examines barriers to due process. Section V discusses recent pro se litigation raising the issue of contaminated water in New York courts. Section VI concludes with a discussion of current efforts to uncover more information on the current state of New York prison water systems compliance and monitoring.

Prisons are inherently violent and toxic places by design. The goal of this work is to amplify the tireless work of people currently incarcerated in New York State prisons to advocate for their rights, despite the gauntlet of administrative and legal barriers to doing so. The authors and contributors of this work hope to advance critical discussion of how these barriers can be not reformed but removed.

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