Estrella Jail Is Making Women Sick, but the County Has Ignored It

Mold Flickr via Toshiyuki IMAI
Seventeen women filed federal lawsuits against Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone in April alleging that black mold in the county's Estrella Jail is making them ill. The women say they are experiencing nasal and chest congestion, phlegmy coughs, itchy eyes, headaches, and a litany of other symptoms.

Estrella Jail "did not comply with proper protocol for the sanitation of vents, drains in showers, and bathrooms," wrote one woman. "There is black mold everywhere. There is no proper extermination of insects and pests ... I feel out of breath all the time. I have constant chest congestion and nasal congestion. I have bug bites, constant headaches, and my vision has gotten worse."

Estrella Jail is one of a handful of detention facilities clustered along West Durango Street in southwest Phoenix. It holds about 1,400 women, some of whom are awaiting trial or are serving short sentences, many for substance-abuse-related crimes.

The lawsuits were all filed during the same week of April and are similarly worded, indicating the women filed the complaints in a joint effort to bring attention to the jail's unsanitary conditions and get help. The lawsuits were filed pro se; the women do not have attorneys. Most name Penzone as the defendant, others list Estrella Jail as the defendant.

Asked whether the jail has a black mold problem and whether anything has ever been done to address the problem, Michael Cavaiola, director of communications and public affairs for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, said the office doesn't comment on pending litigation.

Cavaiola did say "all MCSO facilities are inspected regularly by the County's Department of Environmental Services and those reports are public record."

But when Phoenix New Times called the Department of Environmental Services, a spokesperson for the department said ESD does not inspect facilities for mold. Rather, they inspect facilities for general cleanliness.

"We do conduct inspections," said Johnny Dilone, media and community relations manager for ESD, "but none of our inspections would address mold. Mold is not a part of the inspection. It is not something we are looking for." Dilone said that if inspectors saw something that looked like mold during an inspection, they would notify "the responsible party," in this case, the jail.

click to enlarge Estrella Jail - MCSO
Estrella Jail
It's not the first time people have said black mold in the Estrella facility was making people sick.

On July 26, 2017, someone filed a complaint with the county's Environmental Services Department regarding "Black mold in Dorm G at the Estrella jail," records show.

"Black mold above shower and surrounding areas; coming out of air vents. My daughter has been experiencing severe respiratory health issues being exposed to the mold. She said about 25-30% of the women in Dorm G are being sickened by the black mold," the complaint reads.

Days later, Environmental Services received another complaint regarding "black mold in the shower and air vents in Dorm G."

"Maintenance was in and scrubbed some areas on the ceiling and painted over some areas," wrote June Wiese, whose daughter was incarcerated in the facility at the time. "There is still black mold in the shower and air vents. Female inmates are showing signs of being sickened by the black mold. Bleach is the only ingredient that will kill the mold. Painting will only mask the problem."

The two complaints sent to Environmental Services were referred to the county's Facilities Management, but when New Times called to ask if the complaints had been followed up on, an employee said to contact Risk Management instead. Phone calls and emails to Chris McAbee at Risk Management were not returned.

A September 2017 Environmental Services inspection of Estrella jail obtained by New Times cited the facility for a violation regarding "plumbing not installed and maintained by the approved methods." ESD said the county must repair the clogged shower drain in Dorm G immediately. The department also said the county must repair the jail's clogged toilets, sinks without water pressure, leaking coming from the plumbing closet near the showers, flush tubes in the plumbing closet leaking behind the toilets, and an issue with a chemical dispenser connected downstream from "an atmospheric vacuum breaker at mop sinks."

Given that as recently as last week, 17 women said they were still seeing black mold in the facility and feeling unwell, it appears the county never addressed June Wiese's complaint.

"My daughter was in the facility and she was having health problems while she was there," Wiese told New Times. "She told me they painted over it and that was about the extent of it." Wiese said she never heard back about her complaint.

Complaints submitted to ESD in 2017
Via Environmental Services Department
Kathy Brody, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said she also has received frequent complaints about black mold in the county's jails. "One person even sent a mold sample to our office to show that it was happening," Brody said. Brody filed a public records request to see if the county has ever performed mold remediation in the jails, but what she got back "suggested that there has not been any mold remediation done in any of the jails," Brody told New Times.

"We need to treat people like people and unfortunately the failure to deal with this mold problem is really showing a lack of humanity by the Sheriff's Office and the county," Brody said.

All of the women allege experiencing similar symptoms in their lawsuits. Many of the women also alleged that Paul Penzone, the Democratic sheriff who finally ousted Republican Sheriff Joe Arpaio in a campaign that promised to reverse the notorious, six-term sheriff's cruel practices, is aware of the problem and has been told to take action, but it is unclear what the women are referring to.

"Since being incarcerated in Estrella jail, I've experienced frequent bloody noses, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and excessive fatigue," wrote one woman who is imprisoned for drug use. "My bunk to which I was assigned is directly located just outside the toilets, so I am in the direct path of the mold spores constantly coming from the bathroom. I cough a lot and sometimes cough up stringy black phlegm."

While some people do experience allergy and irritant symptoms from prolonged black mold exposure, it is likely that other factors in their environment are causing the women's symptoms, said Dr. Daniel Brooks, Medical Director of the Poison & Drug Information Center and Outpatient Toxicology Clinic at the Banner University Medical Center.

click to enlarge Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone - SEAN HOLSTEGE
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone
Sean Holstege
Mold often indicates there is a damp environment, Brooks said, and the damp environment that supports mold growth can often cause symptoms like excessive mucus production, itchy eyes, and other irritation. "My suspicion is that they have water damage, plus or minus mold growth," said Brooks.

If many of the people clustered in the same area feel unwell, and if they feel better when they leave the area, it indicates something in their environment is making them feel unwell, he said.

Both of those things are happening in Estrella jail.

"I was right across from the showers," said Alyssa Wolters, one of the 17 women who filed a lawsuit about the mold, during a video visitation on Thursday. "When I'm not near it, that helps. I can breathe better. There is constantly water dripping from the tops of the showers and the ceilings. The toilets are constantly leaking in the bathroom, so there's puddles of water around them."

Wolters said she has been experiencing allergy symptoms, a sore throat, difficulty breathing, headaches, nosebleeds, and at one point had a severe eye infection. "They are not doing anything about it," Wolters said. "They just ignore it and act like it isn't affecting us. It's crazy. They haven't even tried to clean it up. If anything, it's getting worse."

The health problems that have plagued women at Estrella Jail for the past two years have a simple fix, according to Dr. Brooks: clean up the environment.

"Remediate it, dry it out, it can be fixed," Brooks said. "Look at the people with complaints. Evaluate them. Give them Flonase. It's not rocket science. If you go in and you see water intrusion, you dry it up, that's it. Find the leaky pipe, fix it up. Get a dehumidifier."

"The gals that are in there can't do anything about it," said Wiese, whose complaint to Environmental Services about the mold sickening her daughter and others was apparently ignored. "They make complaints, but it doesn't go anywhere. Their health is at risk. And it shouldn't be."
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Meg O'Connor was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from April 2019 to April 2020.