Through a spokesperson, the New Mexico Corrections Department denies that coliform bacteria was found in the drinking water at Springer Correctional Facility. (Photo by David McNew / Getty Images)
People incarcerated at a state prison in northeastern New Mexico were never officially notified about dangerous bacteria found in their drinking water, according to court records and emails obtained by Source NM.
Springer Correctional Center officials have since fixed the water problem first reported in June, and the water is safe to drink, according to state water regulators. New Mexico Corrections Department attorneys argued in court that the prison did not have to notify the incarcerated people about the water contamination.
Prison officials on June 8 told people incarcerated inside the women’s prison in Colfax County not to drink the water, but did not officially notify them coliform had been found in the water.
Around the same time, families of the incarcerated people started telling attorneys representing them that they were getting sick.
A water sample taken at Springer on June 6 contained coliform bacteria, according to an email sent between opposing sides in Duran v. Grisham, the decades-long class action lawsuit about conditions in the state’s prison system.
The New Mexico Environment Department’s drinking water bureau told the state prison system on June 7 that the sample contained coliform, and required a follow-up test to confirm, according to the email.
Four more samples were taken at Springer on June 8, the email states. Two of them contained coliform.
Through spokesperson Anisa Griego-Quintana, the corrections department on July 12 denied the tests found coliform. However, the agency’s statement is contradicted by an email written by its own attorneys and included in a briefing on the matter submitted in federal court.3351-5 redacted
Griego-Quintana said the initial test results showing the presence of coliform was “due to a faulty testing method,” and there was no violation found in the follow-up test.
“Retest was completed and due to a violation not being found, a notice was not posted within the facility,” Griego-Quintana said.
Environment Department Public Relations Coordinator Jorge Armando Estrada confirmed both the initial sample and at least one of the repeat samples taken in June contained coliform.
The Corrections Department has not responded to multiple requests for follow-up comment on Griego-Quintana’s false statement. The most recent request for comment came July 27.
On June 20, the Environment Department told state corrections officials it had “received adequate compliance documentation verifying” Springer had reviewed the water problem and “implemented appropriate corrective action to address sanitary defects.”
Armando Estrada said state environment department inspectors believe the water at the prison is now safe to drink.
“While we believe the water is safe right now, it is ultimately the Springer Correctional (Center)’s obligation to comply with drinking water standards,” he said.
Clean drinking water required by court order
New Mexico’s prison system is bound by a court order to ensure safe drinking water at Springer.
In the most recent settlement agreement in Duran, the Corrections Department in February 2020 agreed to “ensure there is an adequate supply of safe drinking water” at Springer, and if the water is unsafe or inadequate, they “will provide inmates with bottled water.”
The prison started providing inmates with bottled drinking water on June 8, according to the email.
“Inmates are allowed to exchange the empty bottles for a new issuance, as needed,” the email states. “Inmates will continue to receive bottled water, until such time the drinking water is deemed safe by the Environment Department.”
The attorney who wrote the email, Taylor Rahn, a partner with Robles, Rael & Anaya, P.C., declined to comment for this story.
Griego-Quintana said prison officials handed out bottled water and set up water fountains in June 2023 only as a precaution.
“Bottled water and freshwater dispensers were provided as a precautionary measure pending the results of the retest,” Griego-Quintana said.
On June 30, attorneys for New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Corrections Department asked U.S. District Court Judge Kirtan Khalsa to determine if the state is in compliance with the drinking water requirement in the settlement.
New Mexico’s corrections department is complying with the settlement, Khalsa wrote in a July 12 order. Attorneys for the incarcerated people “no longer oppose” the state’s request to be found in compliance, the judge wrote.
Attorneys representing the incarcerated people could not be reached for comment.
Lawyers for the corrections department argued the settlement does not specifically require compliance with state water regulations, the areas of the prison in question do not have drinking fountains, and the documented violations “do not demonstrate unsafe drinking water.”
The state also argued the settlement “does not provide a guarantee of the quality of all water at (Springer Correctional Center), but rather only that inmates have adequate drinking water.”
“(Corrections) has complied with this requirement,” the state’s attorneys wrote. “At no point has the (Environment Department) required (Corrections) to notify (Springer) inmates that the water was not safe to drink.”
Five weeks later, Corrections withholding records
Source NM has an outstanding records request on the water matter at Springer with the New Mexico Corrections Department that was first filed on June 21.
The prison system’s records custodian wrote it would hand over the records by July 7. It did not.
Asked about the delay, the custodian wrote that the state corrections department needed more time to go through the records and figure out what information to redact from the records, and it would respond by July 17.
Corrections officials missed that deadline, too.
The custodian did not respond to an email on July 20 and a voicemail on Wednesday asking about the status of the request.
Review finds warning sign of contamination
Whenever a public water system tests positive for coliform bacteria, state and federal law require them to also test for any sanitary defects that might explain the contamination.
If the level of disinfectant is too low, it can act as an early warning sign there is some kind of contamination in the water, according to the EPA.
In this case, when the Drinking Water Bureau told prison officials about the positive test, it gave corrections 30 days to hire a certified water operator to check the water system at Springer for any sanitary defects.
“The water system was required to conduct an assessment to determine the cause of the total coliform samples in order (to) prevent any future coliform positive results,” said Estrada, the Environment Department spokesperson.
On June 19, a consultant hired by state prison officials found there was “low/inadequate disinfectant residual” in the places where he collected samples, and in the water lines.
In it, consultant Robert Towle wrote he found an “unclean or unsuitable sample tap.”
“The sample location at a deep basin (slop) sink,” they wrote. “The sink is typically dirty.”
Source NM obtained copies of the six-page assessment form and other emails between the two state agencies through a public records request with the Drinking Water Bureau.
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