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By Pat Eaton-Robb
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A group of Connecticut prison inmates has asked a federal judge for bottled drinking water, alleging the tap water at the Osborn Correctional Institution is tainted with bacteria found in sewage.
The inmates say they are forced to drink foul water while guards bring their own bottled water from outside the prison. Even therapy dogs at Osborn are provided with bottled or filtered water, according to the complaint.
The request is part of a lawsuit that accuses the state of exposing inmates to hazardous materials such as PCBs and asbestos at Osborn, a medium security prison that houses over 1,300 inmates in Somers.
The inmates involved in the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, allege many prisoners have become ill with bacteria known as helicobacter pylori, which is typically water-borne and caused by sewage entering the water supply.
“We don’t think there is a smoking gun here, where they are trying to poison people,” said attorney Lorey Rives Leddy, who represents the inmates. “But, we’ve got a lot of people who were healthy when they went in and managed to come out with digestive problems and many of them were diagnosed while they were in there.”
The Correction Department denies the allegations. Richard Hardy, a plant facility engineer at Osborn, testified during a deposition last November that he knows of no problems with the water system and he would drink the tap water at Osborn.
Prison spokeswoman Karen Martucci said the water quality at Osborn is tested by a laboratory approved by the state Department of Public Heath, using DPH guidelines.
“As the publicly available test results demonstrate, the water supply at the Osborn Correctional Institution has fully met the state and federal drinking water standards for the years 2011 through July 2019,” she said in an email.
But affidavits filed by 38 inmates and former inmates at Osborn described discolored water that smells of feces or rotten food. Many of the inmates wrote that drinking and showering in the water led to problems, some of them long-term, ranging from skin irritation and diarrhea to rectal bleeding.
“Sometimes the water was brown, black green and had flakes of rust or some type of sediment,” wrote inmate Jeremy Barney, who is serving a 20-year sentence for sexual assault. “The water often had the smell of feces or fetid decomposing organic matter.”
U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill this week gave both sides until Sept. 20 to officially respond to the injunction request.
Leddy suggests in court filings that the prison’s water supply may have become contaminated during work on sewage lines in which she said holes were drilled in waste pipes to make it easier for crews to snake out clogs.
“These allegations have been corroborated by an affidavit submitted to undersigned counsel by an inmate at Osborn who was previously a licensed plumber and who worked alongside the maintenance crews at Osborn.” she wrote. “It is believed that these holes have likely allowed raw sewage to seep into the surrounding soil and groundwater.”
She said the problems with water at Osborn go back decades to the 1990s, when wells in the area were found to be contaminated by chemicals from a dry cleaning operation that was located on the site.
She said because of that contamination, local residents were hooked up to a municipal water supply. The prison, she said, stopped using two wells that were found to be contaminated, switching to three others that met health standards.
Leddy has asked Underhill to require bottled drinking water at the prison until a third-party can complete full-scale testing of the prisons tap water.