4 Toilets, 830 People: Douglas Prison's Water Crisis Was Years in the Making

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(UPDATE Tuesday at 12:15 p.m.: The Arizona state prison complex in Douglas has water again, according to state and local officials. Cochise County officials said Monday night that they had repaired the leak that cut off the water supply to the prison for the last four days. The Arizona Department of Corrections said on Monday night that all housing units in the prison had water again. A family member of one person housed in the prison confirmed that the water is back on. A statement from Cochise County said staff would continue to monitor the situation at the prison and would leave emergency water tanks in place until Tuesday.)

For four days, more than 2,000 people at the Arizona state prison complex in Douglas have had no running water.

The 50 portable toilets brought to the facility are overflowing with feces and urine, and despite scorching temperatures over the weekend, some people have had no air conditioning.

Officials distributed water bottles, but those inside the prison complex are rationing their water. Inmates have continued their regular prison labor, despite the fact that they have been unable to shower or do laundry since Friday morning, according to two people whose loved ones are incarcerated in the facility.

Both women visited their loved ones in person on Saturday and have talked to them on the phone each day since. The women saw the situation at Douglas firsthand and spoke to Phoenix New Times on the condition of anonymity out of fear that the men may be retaliated against if they are named.

"If we let situations like this get worse, nothing gets fixed, and people could die," said Charlotte (not her real name). "This is how riots start."

The water problems began on Friday morning, according to the women, who both had received phone calls from their loved ones that morning.

But no one told Cochise County's Office of Emergency Services until 5 p.m. that afternoon, said Amanda Baillie, a spokesperson for the office.

The Arizona Department of Corrections and Cochise County's Office of Emergency Services have acknowledged the problem. ADC said it had put contingency measures in place, deferring questions about the water system’s problems to Cochise County, the municipal water provider to the prison.

Officials with Cochise County said they are working on fixing several problems and completing construction of a new well, but they could not offer a concrete idea when those issues would be fixed. Baillie said the well ran dry last Wednesday, so they dug deeper for a new water supply. She said they then found that they had a leak in the system and have since shut it down in order to locate the leak and begin repairs.

According to one former county official, the water system that supplies the prison has had problems since 2016, although it has before never lost water service on this scale.

One of the two wells supplying the prison, dubbed No. 8, first began having issues in 2016, and since spring 2018, the system has relied solely on the other well, known as No. 7, said Jay Howe, who retired in January from his post as Cochise County’s facilities and airport director. The same water system supplies the Bisbee-Douglas International Airport and the prison, with 99 percent of the water going to the prison, Howe said.

Howe began recommending in 2016 that the county drill a third well, he said. Three years later, with the prison complex out of water, the county is scrambling to finish that well on an accelerated timeline.

Despite efforts to drill deeper and repair the well starting in 2016, “we never could never restore the reliability of No. 8,” Howe said.

Howe said No. 7, “the workhorse,” never had problems, but that he had often wondered about the possibilities. “I lost sleep at night wondering when it was going to crap out,” he said.

On Friday night, No. 7 ran out of water, said Joe Casey, chief information officer for Cochise County. They spent Saturday drilling to extend the well by 150 feet, then reconnect it. No. 7 functioned after that, pumping 1,000 gallons of water per minute, Casey said, but it still did not provide enough water to the prison, due to a water main leak.

Well No. 7, along with the defunct No. 8, is a mile away from the 200,000-gallon tank where water for the prison is stored.

“We’ve been doing troubleshooting since [Saturday],” Casey said. “We have contractors sending equipment and parts down right now to get it fixed,” he said. He hoped, but could not confirm, that those parts and equipment would arrive today.

The county had also accelerated its work on the new well, which was already drilled, Casey added. “APS is here now, installing power lines,” he said. He did not have a timeline for when the new well would be finished, but said the county was “trying to get a connection up in the next couple days” and was “just doing final construction on it.”

The Arizona Department of Corrections says it is “continually” providing inmates with bottled water and that it has temporarily restored water to its Mohave and Gila housing units, where the majority of inmates live.

Jessica (not her real name), whose son is held in the Mohave Unit, and Charlotte said water distribution has been somewhat of a free-for-all, and that until this morning, not everybody had been given bottled water.

In the Mohave unit, where there were only four portable toilets until an additional four toilets arrived this morning, inmates were filling up small water jugs from another source of water that had been delivered to the prison. She said that breakfast this morning was the first time her son had received bottled water, and he was given only two 16.9-ounce bottles.

Both women said prison personnel are filling trash cans with water for people to clean themselves with. At the Eggers unit, Charlotte said the trash cans filled with water had been placed “in the middle of the yard. It’s like the Hunger Games.”

According to Jessica, the Mohave Unit has been largely without air conditioning since the water shutoff began. Her son told her he and other inmates have been spending most of their time outside, because despite temperatures in the high 90s, it’s cooler than inside the facility.

“When this has gone on for so long, it starts to erode people's spirit,” said Charlotte. “What the public seems to forget is, these are all humans. These are people’s husbands and fathers and sons. When you're in prison, you are treated as less than human.”

The prison now has 50 portable restrooms, the vast majority of which are only for inmates, according to Andrew Wilder, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Corrections. All prisoners have access to those toilets at all times, he added.

In response to a question about family members’ reports that these toilets were overflowing with feces, Wilder said, “That is not true.” He said that all of the portable toilets “are being regularly pumped out, cleaned, and serviced by [a] vendor.”

The department said that bottled water was being handed out as well as stocked in water coolers throughout the complex. More than 20,800 bottles of water were given out between Friday and Sunday, and more was supposedly on the way.

According to the Department of Corrections, it first detected water-pressure issues on Friday at the Eggers Unit.

The loss of water affects not only toilets, showers, and drinking supplies, but also evaporative air conditioning, which cools the Mohave Unit (inmate population: 830), about 20 percent of the housing areas in the Gila Unit (933 inmates), and the kitchens. Evaporative cooling requires water, because it works by pumping air through water-soaked material.

In Douglas, temperatures over the weekend reached the mid-90s; this week, they are forecast to eclipse 100 on two days and hit the high 90s on two others. ADC said it has been trucking in water to supply the prison’s evaporative air conditioning systems.

Well records from the Arizona Department of Water Resources show two wells in the vicinity of the Douglas prison complex, just south of the Bisbee-Douglas International Airport. The records don’t indicate which one is No. 7 and which one is No. 8, but they do show that each is decades old.

One well was completed in 1970, according to registration paperwork filed with the Department of Water Resources in 1982. The other was finished in 1987. Monitoring data show that the depth to groundwater has increased in those decades, from a little more than 200 feet around 1990 to nearly 230 feet in 2014.

Howe, the former Cochise County official who began urging the county to dig a new well starting in 2016, said that the prison never lost water unexpectedly during his tenure. In November 2016, they shut off the water for three nights in a row, but that was for scheduled repairs to rehabilitate the water tank and rebuild the transmission supply system, Howe said, adding that, "It went off like clockwork.”
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Meg O'Connor was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from April 2019 to April 2020.
Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.