Out of Control: Chapter 17–Spring Bursts Out All Over, 1990

The campaign to end the use of toxic water exploded the first week of May. (See CEML newsletter with photos), list of petitions submitted and schedule of events around the country.) We met some goals and fell short of some others.

Between February and May, we helped “things happen” in all the places Steve’s proposal had suggested, and people from those areas participated in our May activities, either joining us or protesting in their regions— Marion/Carbondale, Champaign-Urbana, St. Louis, and D.C. In Madison activists demonstrated at Kastenmeier’s office even though the Congressman was an ally. We figured the pressure “from below” could only help him to move forward on the issue. Friends in Denver, Portland (Oregon), and San Francisco, Hartford, Philadelphia, and New York organized activities on their own.

Despite all our running around, we also managed to do some work in Chicago with a program about the Stanford prison experiment. As predicted, however, we were unable to collect 16, 000 signatures, but we did manage to amass 6,000. Not a bad start. Early in the first week of May our CEML video was shown in the Wisconsin Student Union in Madison. A group of people then spent noontime on Friday, May 4 leafleting the lunch crowd on the Capitol square, then trooped up to Rep. Kastenmeier’s office and presented copies of the petitions with 6500 signatures. They also presented a list of all the political prisoners held at Marion and demanded an immediate investigation into their selective mistreatment.

The May issue of The Progressive magazine, produced in Madison, had a lead article, “Toxins on Tap?” by Linda Rocawich. Kastenmeier’s staff distributed a printed statement from the Congressman saying that he had inquired into the safety of the water at Marion, both with the Bureau of Prisons and the Environmental Protection Agency, and was planning a visit to the prison later in the month to assess the conditions of confinement firsthand.

As part of the campaign against toxic water at Marion, San Francisco Bay Area activists gathered at Pier 41 where the ferry boats leave for Alcatraz Island. In an act of great creativity, they distributed more than a thousand copies of a mock version of the real Golden Gate National Recreation Area brochure about Alcatraz. Their leaflet, entitled “Marion: The New Alcatraz,” demanded: “Turn Off the Poison Water” and “Stop the Lockdown.” When police forced them off “private property” and into the streets, Morton Sobell, who spent five years at Alcatraz, addressed the crowd of tourists waiting to purchase ferry tickets saying: “I don’t understand people in this country. When we were at Alcatraz no one paid much attention to us. Now, everyone wants to go there.” Bobby Castillo of the International Indian Treaty Council added, “If you want to see what a prison’s like, go back over to the housing projects where people have to live in concrete boxes. They’re built just like prison cells.”

In Washington, D.C. on Friday, May 4, a religious delegation composed of: Rev. Yasutake; Kathy Flewellen, Associate Director of the D.C. office of the American Friends Service Committee; Rev. Canon Kwasi Thornell, Canon Missioner of Washington Cathedral; and Judy Greenspan of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, presented themselves at BOP central headquarters. Rev. Yasutake had been trying to set up this appointment since March, but despite ample notice, Director Quinlan refused to meet with them and failed to designate any other ranking Bureau member to meet with them. As Rev. Yasutake later wrote, “After presenting a staff member with the petitions, I asked for a picture with the BOP staff. The secretary called the public relations officer. He entered and said ‘no’ to picture-taking. When asked whether there was any policy on picture-taking, he replied that he ‘just didn’t want my picture taken with you.’ All this refusal for picture-taking seems symbolic of how the BOP would rather operate in the shadow of darkness than the light of day.” The delegation continued on to Congress and met with staff from the offices of both Rep. Kastenmeier and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois. (Yasutake’s full report with photos).

In Boulder, Colorado on Saturday, May 5th, the Student Coalition for Human Rights led a walk through the Pearl Street Mall where the Boulder courthouse is located, carrying placards, distributing flyers, and talking with people.

In Portland, Oregon demonstrators gathered at the Federal Building at noon and distributed our Fact Sheet on the Proposed Prison in Florence, Colorado, the new supermax in Colorado designed to replace Marion. Among the sponsoring groups were the Leonard Peltier Support Group and United Indian Women.

Also on May 3 in Chicago, activists gathered at the federal building in an incessant rain and distributed hundreds of flyers, a preliminary to the overnight bus trip to Marion the next day.

I missed the demonstration in the torrential rain because I went down to Carbondale/Marion a couple of days early along with Lourdes. She and I had our own challenges. Driving at night through a horrendous thunderstorm with blinding rain, I was nearly ready to pull over for the night until convinced by Lourdes to plow on ahead. We arrived safely and held a press conference on Friday at the Interfaith Center to amp up local support for our demonstration.

In addition to the two of us, the speakers were John McHale of the Mid-American Peace Program, and Janet Bifield, whose husband was incarcerated at Marion. The local coverage included radio and TV spots with substantial articles in both newspapers. “Group challenges prison on ‘toxic’ drinking water supply” was the Saturday headline on the front page of the Marion Daily Republican, along with a picture of the four of us, while the Southern Illinoisan read “Protest set today at prison. Water supply questioned.”

Lourdes and I also spoke at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in three classes and at a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the rebellion on that very campus in protest of the murders of the students at Kent State on May 4, 1970. In addition we visited the offices of local congressional representative Glenn Poshard.

Then on Saturday morning the demonstrators began to arrive at the campus of SIU. Two busloads from Chicago were joined with carloads of protesters from St. Louis, Des Moines, as well as residents of Southern Illinois. We set out, 125 strong, to talk with people in the region about the situation at Marion, stopping at the post office, Crab Orchard Lake, and the prison. Some people held banners or wore human billboards. Others leafleted passersby, while still others petitioned and picketed. We heard from police and onlookers that word of our presence was spreading through the area by radio and word of mouth.

At the prison, we marched from the main road to the locked fence chanting as we walked: “Toxic water is the crime/The BOP should drink the slime” and “The human rights problem in the world today/Is right here in the U.S.A.” Still about a mile away from the prison, we held our rally, hearing from representatives of the different groups present, as well as messages from prisoners. A CEML speaker challenged the prison officials who were standing stolidly on the other side of the fence, to step forward and accept a copy of our petitions.

Much to our surprise, one of them did just that. On May 8 we received a letter from Warden Henman stating that: The Public Health Service and several local health service agencies perform scheduled testing of this water supply and their reports do not indicate that inmates are experiencing adverse health effects related to the drinking water. The water that is currently supplied from Crab Orchard Lake is often discolored and has a peculiar taste. Although this drinking water meets all health standards and is safe to drink, the Bureau of Prisons is committed to improving this water supply. The estimated 18 months that will be required to create a long term water resource is a necessary and realistic time investment for a project of this size and complexity.

By mid-June there was a new warden in town—John Clark. We received a letter from Clark claiming that “although we were bright and resourceful attorneys,” our facts were completely wrong and our arguments rhetorical and unscientific. He even “guessed” that we “know all the data strongly contradicts your rhetoric and would undermine the aims of your campaign to discredit the Bureau of Prisons.” He demanded “good faith and a sense of fairness in terms of honesty and use of factual data.” Unbelievable! Clearly we lived in different universes. He reiterated that they were working on an alternative water source but it had nothing to do with the safety of the current water supply.

On May 18 Kastenmeier went down to Marion and, although the front-page headline in the Southern Illinoisan read “Prison water’s quality defended,” it was agreed that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency could test and analyze the water inside Marion. Although we’d been demanding testing for quite some time, Warden Clark was quoted as saying that the people with the grievances should “put up or shut up.”

Kastenmeier’s Subcommittee, with the assistance of the Illinois State EPA, was permitted to take samples that would then be analyzed by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry. (ATSDR) (The following month the Committee issued a formal report: June 19, 1990 Subcommittee Report on Visit to Marion. We did not put our work on hold to hear about Kastenmeier’s results. In early June CEML honed in further on the water issue, producing a newsletter entitled No Toxic Water Diets! End the Marion Lockdown! in which we described our work and included many photos of our activities.

We issued a press release and on Thursday, August 9, 1990, at 3 pm, held a press conference in front of the main post office in Chicago. As part of the protest campaign against the use of toxic water, the press conference heralded the delivery of several cartons of water bottles to J. Michael Quinlan, Director of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and John Clark, the warden of USP Marion. The bottles each had labels demanding that the BOP fill them and others like them with safe water for the prisoners at Marion. Many individuals from across the country had already mailed bottles to Quinlan and the BOP. This mailing completed one more phase in the campaign to convince the BOP to immediately stop using toxic water at USP Marion.

Throughout that summer and into the fall the warden continued to deny any health risk from the water. Dick Clapp continued to insist that according to the EPA’s previous report, the trihalomethanes were two times the current permissible standard, and also that consumers were supposed to be notified of the situation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

When Warden Clark first came in, we had some hope for his humanity, as he had previously been a priest. But in fact, he was miffed by our connections to the religious community. He responded to an article critical of the prison in the Chicago newsletter Pax Christi II written by Donna Engle, an article that had also been quoted by the National Catholic Reporter. His piece entitled “Marion Penitentiary: Beyond the Myths (pg. 8)” refuted all our claims as reflected in Donna’s article. He specifically stated that “The water supply at Marion has been repeatedly tested and meets every applicable EPA safe drinking water standard.” That fall substantial articles sympathetic to the prisoners appeared in a number of other magazines, including the New York WigWag and Mother Jones.

We continued to fight back with a mass campaign encouraging all our supporters to send empty plastic bottles to the BOP and the warden. We had clever 3 x10 inch stickers printed up of a skeleton-head water spigot with a horizontal slash drawn through it. In big red letters the stickers demanded that the BOP provide bottled water to the prisoners. We stuck these labels on the empty bottles and sent them off.

In October of 1990 Kastenmeier sent a letter to BOP Director Quinlan to “share the results of this study and to ask that you take immediate steps to address the serious public health risks identified by ATSDR [Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry].” In fact, they found that trihalomethanes, which can result in an increased risk of cancer, were present in the water at levels as high as two times the EPA’s maximum contamination level. Kastenmeier urged the BOP to notify the prisoners and the staff of the water contamination and to make an alternative water supply available while correcting the situation.

You may be wondering if we received an apology, a “whoops, we’re sorry for resisting you for so long, for maligning you, for calling you liars.” But no, that was far from what happened. On November 1 we issued a press release stating that on Saturday, November 3, we would release definitive evidence that the water was contaminated. Mariel Nanasi and Tim Lohraff, two members of CEML, drove down to Southern Illinois to hold a press conference where they would release the report of the water in the sink at Marion, as well as Congressman Kastenmeier’s letter to BOP Director Quinlan.

Mysteriously enough, it was on that same day, November 1st, that a memo was posted by Marion Warden Clark acknowledging the toxicity of the water but denying that any concern was warranted.

At our press conference, Mariel and Tim stood with relabeled CEML bottles in hand and blasted the BOP for forcing the prisoners to bathe in and consume toxic water. They charged that the BOP had known about this since 1986, yet continued contaminating the prisoners. Additionally, they cited the Code of Federal Regulations which demands notification to a known poisoned population. They also noted that not until announcement of our press conference was any posting done —and that it was inadequate at best.

During the press conference the media informed Mariel and Tim that the BOP had called a last-minute press conference of their own in an attempt to preempt ours, only two hours earlier. The press pointed out what a rarity it was for the warden to hold a Saturday press conference, as he was never available to the press on Saturdays. Warden Clark publicly declared his intention to change the water supply, but said it had nothing to do with our efforts and was instead due to the “bad taste” of the water.

On November 4, 1990 a picture of the warden drinking a glass of water appeared on the front page of the Southern Illinoisan next to the headline Marion warden tries to douse water concerns..” The warden claimed vindication based on technicalities, but Committee members Mariel Nanasi and Tim Lohraff were on hand to refute his lies and claim victory.

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