NORFOLK — In 2011, after years of inmate complaints about the tea-colored water and long-term problems with aging tanks and wells, the state’s largest prison suffered an unprecedented failure to its water supply.
Toilets wouldn’t flush. Showers wouldn’t run. Behind the 19-foot concrete walls of MCI-Norfolk, the taps ran dry.
The massive water failure, blamed on excessive sediment coursing through old pipes, led the state Department of Environmental Protection to fine the nearly century-old prison thousands of dollars and order the Department of Correction to install an expensive new water-treatment system.
Six years later, the state has still not built the new system, and inmates, their advocates, and environmental scientists worry that the drinking water is unsafe.
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A Globe review of state records found that 43 percent of all water samples collected at MCI-Norfolk since 2011 showed elevated levels of manganese, a prime component of the sediment from the wells. The naturally occurring mineral, found in many foods, can be dangerous when ingested at heightened levels for prolonged periods, potentially leading to tremors, slowed speech, and other neurological disorders that resemble Parkinson’s disease.
With nearly half of MCI-Norfolk’s roughly 1,500 inmates serving life sentences — more lifers than in any other state prison — many worry about their extended exposure to the water, and some blame it for their health problems.
Prisoners have also complained that adequate water supplies are lacking, even now, and that they endure strict limits on how much they can use.
In December, the Norfolk Inmate Council, which represents prisoners, reported that nearly two-thirds of inmates responding to a survey said they had suffered rashes and other skin problems. Nearly half complained of intestinal issues, and others had respiratory and vision problems, the council said.
While its report didn’t provide any evidence linking the water quality to the inmates’ health complaints, the council called the persistent water problems “troubling.”
In the report, inmates said the water is regularly brown, and that filters in the communal sinks of housing units are routinely clogged with sediment. Because water samples are collected from the source rather than the tap, the tests could be missing lead and other sediment from corroded pipes, inmates said.
The report also found that few inmates could afford to buy bottled water. The prison sells 16-ounce bottles for 65 cents, about one-third of an inmate’s average daily wage, earned for work in the prison.
Most infuriating to the inmates, the prison allegedly provided jugs of bottled water to the dogs that live in the prison and are trained by inmates to become service providers for the disabled.
“Dogs are provided bottled water, but the human inmates are not,” the report stated. “This creates . . . a strong distrust of the [prison] administrators’ stance on any and all water/health related issues.”
State says water is safe
CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF
A Globe review found that 43 percent of all water samples collected at the prison since 2011 showed elevated levels of manganese.
State environmental officials denied many of the inmates’ allegations and insisted the prison’s water is safe.
Asked about the elevated levels of manganese, Peter Lorenz, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said, “More than half the water samples are within compliance.”
In an e-mail, Department of Environmental Protection officials said the prison was in “compliance with MassDEP requirements for addressing this type of issue.”
The prison aims to follow the US Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory for manganese, which recommends that people drink water with levels below 0.3 milligrams per liter over their lifetime. Since the state began testing for manganese at MCI-Norfolk in 2008, 38 percent of the samples have reached or exceeded that threshold.
“With most of the water values below the advisory level, any risk of adverse effects are minimal,” said Ed Coletta, a DEP spokesman. “MCI-Norfolk continues to meet all of the . . . primary drinking water standards, and . . . all required upgrades to the MCI-Norfolk water system are being implemented.”
But environmental scientists say that prisoners have legitimate cause for concern.
Bob Bentley, the lab director at the Analytical Balance Corp. in Middleborough, which has been testing MCI-Norfolk’s water the past five years, said the risks of manganese have only become apparent to health researchers in recent years.
“I think it is a concern,” he said of the samples, which the prison collects and provides to him in special bottles. “I hope someone is working on cleaning it up.”
Others noted that researchers could find that manganese is harmful at lower levels, as they have concluded about lead, mercury, and other environmental toxins.
“There is very little that has become more safe when we have taken a closer look at it,” said Wendy Heiger-Bernays, an associate professor of environmental health at Boston University. “It is more than likely that the allowable levels of manganese in water will decrease as we learn more about its effects on the brain.”
Birgit Claus Henn, a Boston University epidemiologist who has spent years studying the impact of manganese on people, said the water system should have been repaired if even 10 percent of samples showed elevated levels of the mineral. She pointed to recent studies showing that manganese, even at low levels, can contribute to poor academic performance, diminished verbal function, and other cognitive problems, she said.
“Given that these individuals are chronically exposed, and they aren’t given a choice and can’t seek an alternate source for their water, I would be concerned that this population isn’t adequately protected,” Claus Henn said.
Prisoners are also potentially more susceptible to the harmful effects of manganese, because many of them have struggled with addictions and other health issues. Liver problems and other metabolic issues, for example, impair the body’s ability to absorb and excrete manganese, she said.
“Clean drinking water is a basic right,” Claus Henn said. “If the state isn’t meeting that 40 percent of the time, that’s a problem.”
State public health officials, after learning from the Globe that many of the prison’s water samples had elevated levels of manganese, said they would consider reviewing the inmates’ concerns.
“It’s certainly worth looking at,” said Marc Nascarella, director of the environmental toxicology program at the state Department of Public Health. “Is it a concern that individuals who are incarcerated don’t have access to clean, fresh water? Yes.”
Yet he cautioned against automatically linking elevated levels with health problems.
“Much more analysis is needed,” he said. “I don’t want to introduce fear into that community where it isn’t warranted.”
‘Unpleasing,’ not harmful
Senior administrators at MCI-Norfolk declined to answer questions. They also denied for months a Globe request to interview inmates, tour the prison, or collect water samples to have them tested independently.
State records show that the prison has repeatedly failed to meet deadlines for replacing its water treatment facility. It has received four extensions since the Department of Environmental Protection ordered it to build a new system in 2012.
The state finally broke ground on the project last year, Department of Correction officials said. The prison is required to complete it by next spring.
The new plant “will have the ability to filter out iron and manganese and should minimize any discolored water in the future,” Christopher Fallon, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, wrote in an e-mail. “The new plant will also allow the DOC the ability to bring additional well water online.”
Fallon said the prison has adhered to federal and state guidelines for contaminants in water and believes the water is safe to drink. Discolored water isn’t exclusive to MCI-Norfolk, he noted. Wells throughout New England can yield discolored water when they run low and contain higher concentrations of manganese or iron.
“Although it can be aesthetically unpleasing, it is not harmful,” he wrote.
MCI-Norfolk also now has a contract to purchase water from the town to maintain water pressure when the prison’s wells run low, Fallon said.
When the water turns dark, the prison provides filtered water, he said. He denied the allegation that the prison gives bottled water to the dogs in the training program.
“In fact, the dogs live with the inmate handlers and are provided food and water by the inmate handlers,” he wrote.
Fallon defended the delays to the treatment system, saying all the bids initially exceeded the department’s budget for the work and that led to a series of contract delays.
Fallon declined to respond to other allegations by the inmates.
CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF
State environmental officials insisted the prison’s water is safe.
On a recent afternoon, officials at MCI-Norfolk allowed a Globe reporter to meet one inmate during regular visiting hours, as nearly anyone from the public would be allowed to do, but would not allow the reporter to bring a notebook or record the conversation.
Behind the forbidding walls and razor wire, Timothy Muise, one of several inmates who had written to the Globe about the issue, said the water has gotten worse since he came to the prison in 2007.
A former longshoreman from Gloucester serving 18 years for manslaughter, Muise, 53, said he felt free to speak about the problem, in part because he’s scheduled to complete his sentence next month. Others risked being punished by guards for talking to a reporter, he said.
“We have never been given clean water while I have been housed here,” he wrote in a letter to the reporter. “You can feel your insides churn when you drink the water.”
He also accused prison administrators of “lying” about not providing the dogs bottled water, which he said he confirmed with the dogs’ handlers. He said they stopped the practice when the Globe began asking questions.
In the prison’s visiting room, Muise said the water in his cell sometimes comes out black and is nearly always brown. He lets it run for a minute before using it to brush his teeth, wash his face, or drink, hoping to flush out some of the sediment.
“It’s disgusting,” he said. “No one here thinks it’s safe.”
In a letter to the Globe, another inmate, Wayland Coleman, the elected cochairman of the Norfolk Inmate Council, said the water has looked like “black tea” since last November and “smells horribly.”
Coleman, 39, who’s serving a life sentence for murder, worries about the long-term impact of the water. He said prison officials in February placed him in solitary confinement for a month after he mailed the council’s report to the Globe, and later stripped him of his position on the council.
Fallon said he couldn’t respond to Coleman’s allegations, without a waiver signed by the inmate.
A few weeks ago, Coleman said, he was drying himself off after a shower and noticed that his towel looked as if it “was used to wipe dirt off the floor.”
“I don’t know exactly what is in this water, but I do know that it is in my hair, eyes, nose, and skin,” he wrote. “I ingest it, and with each swallow, I fear for my long-term health.”
SHIRLEY - On a manicured hill that looks like a college campus, men covered with tattoos trot around a field of grazing cows, while others tend to gardens near a patch of woods or play basketball beside a busy road - all with scarcely a guard in sight.
Unlike two other state prisons in the distance, where razor wire tops tall fences and guards lurk in lookout towers, the only physical barriers preventing more than 300 prisoners from disappearing into the thicket of trees or hopping into a getaway car are scattered signs warning that going beyond is “out of bounds.’’
“It would be easy to escape,’’ said Edwin Guadalupe, 31, who is serving a five-year sentence at the minimum-security section of MCI-Shirley, where some inmates spend years before wrapping up sentences for crimes as serious as second-degree murder.
But it wasn’t until a gang-connected inmate, Tamik Kirkland, escaped and allegedly went on a shooting spree inside a Springfield barbershop last April, leaving one man dead, that the full risk of minimum-security prisons became clear.
The escape has raised questions about whether inmates such as Kirkland, an aspiring rapper serving a 2 1/2-to-4-year sentence on gun charges related to a 2008 murder attempt, should be housed in a prison without walls. At a minimum, many questioned why it was so easy for Kirkland to slip out an unbarred window and into the night undetected.
Few are more angry about Kirkland’s escape than fellow inmates at MCI-Shirley, many of whom feel they are paying for his crimes with new security measures, such as bars on some of the windows.
“If he wasn’t able to walk away so easily, that violence would have never taken place,’’ said Sergeant John Delaney of the Springfield Police Department. “It would have saved the city of Springfield a lot of heartache.’’
All but two of the 73 prisoners who have escaped from Massachusetts prisons since 2000 have come from similar facilities that lack fences or walls around the perimeter, even though they hold fewer than 15 percent of all state inmates. Twenty escapees remain at large, and at least four others were accused of new crimes while they were free, Department of Correction records show.
Yet, defenders of minimum-security prisons say the Springfield killing should not overshadow the value of these facilities as training grounds for life after prison. Research shows that inmates released from minimum security are less likely to commit future crimes than those released from higher-security prisons. If anything, prisoner advocates say Massachusetts should make more use of minimum-security prisons.
“You have to accept some risk when preparing prisoners for reentry,’’ said Leslie Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, a nonprofit prisoners’ rights group. “It’s just like surgery. The risk you may die from an operation may be infinitesimal, but the risk is still there. To have the public assume that there’s absolutely no risk is inaccurate. We don’t want to give people a false sense of security.’’
Few are more angry about Kirkland’s escape than fellow inmates at MCI-Shirley, many of whom feel they are paying for his crimes with new security measures, such as bars on some of the windows. Dozens of interviews with inmates during a rare three-day visit to state prisons over the summer suggest they value the relative freedom of minimum security and worry about losing it.
JESSEY DEARING FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
Christian Roche (left) and Jose Rivera from MCI-Shirley cut grass at a cemetery during a work-crew assignment during the summer.
For prisoners such as Guadalupe, who was sentenced three years ago for illegally possessing a gun and lived in the same dormitory as Kirkland, there’s a significant difference between living at MCI-Shirley and at the medium-security prison in Concord where he started his sentence. There are fewer fights, more freedom of movement, and the opportunity to leave prison grounds to mow lawns, paint walls, or do other jobs on a supervised work crew, all of which earn inmates time off their sentences.
To leave his dorm, all the father from Lawrence has to do is sign out at the front desk. The cover of the surrounding foliage and the fast-moving traffic of Route 2 are tantalizingly close. If he wanted, he could slip away unnoticed, even in the light of day.
But like many prisoners, he said it would make little sense to flee now, so close to finishing his sentence, especially when a failed escape can tack on up to 10 more years in prison.
Sitting on the bunk bed of his dorm room, where he can see both the road that would take him home and the imposing fences around the medium- and maximum-security prisons at the bottom of the hill, Guadalupe said he was mystified by Kirkland’s decision.
“Who wants to have to run for the rest or your life?’’ he said. “At this point, I don’t see the point in walking away.’’
Christian Roche, 32, a former drug dealer from Holyoke who has spent more than five years in prison, said he couldn’t understand why anyone would escape while so close to wrapping up their sentence. “Why would I run now?’’ he said. “We’re on our way.’’
. . .
The shooting at the Springfield barbershop - an apparent act of revenge in which Kirkland, 25, allegedly wounded a barber at Bill Brown’s Beauty, Barbershop and Supply and killed a young father in the barber’s chair before being seriously wounded in a shootout with police - rekindled a debate over prison security dating to at least 1988.
During the presidential campaign that year, Vice President George H.W. Bush lambasted Governor Michael Dukakis for a weekend furlough program that allowed Willie Horton, a convicted murderer sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, to escape and rape a woman in Maryland.
In the years since, Massachusetts has throttled back on programs that could be seen as overly generous to prisoners. Not only is the furlough program gone, but the percentage of Massachusetts inmates sent to minimum-security prisons has plummeted to less than half the national average, as the state has toughened the requirements for inmates to qualify.
Tamik Kirkland escaped through the window of his room at the Shirley minimum security prison.
Today, prisoners are not eligible for minimum-security prisons until they are within four years of the end of their sentence, a limit adopted in 2006, and they have to behave. If they are disciplined for violent or unruly behavior, the inmates may be sent back to a higher-security institution. Sex offenders, first-degree murderers, and those with outstanding legal issues are ineligible.
Still, Department of Correction officials say they prefer to move inmates into lower-security prisons if possible, because inmates are less likely to return if they make the transition to society from lower-security prisons. In addition, minimum security only costs the state $38,000 a year per inmate, nearly 30 percent less than maximum security.
The idea is that lower-security prisons, especially those like Shirley that lack a walled perimeter, offer inmates a taste of freedom and a test of responsibility.
The most recent data available show that 57 percent of inmates who leave a maximum-security prison in Massachusetts return in three years, compared with 37 percent of those exiting a minimum-security prison or prerelease facility.
But as of this spring, little more than 13 percent of Massachusetts’ nearly 11,500 inmates were in minimum-security or prerelease facilities, down from 23 percent in 1988.
Nationally, by comparison, 35 to 40 percent of inmates are in minimum-security prisons, according to the US Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections.
Walker, of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, argues that the state’s limits on the use of minimum-security prisons has a measurable impact: a growing number of inmates walk out of medium- and maximum-security prisons with little preparation for civilian life and no parole or probation officer to keep an eye on them. Last year, nearly 1,800 prisoners were released from medium or maximum security to the streets, a significant number with no post-prison supervision.
JESSEY DEARING FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
Douglas Hurlbert (left), and Kenny Carbone, in their 14-man residence at the prison.
And the number of inmates leaving prison unsupervised is likely to increase as parole becomes harder to obtain, due to a state crackdown on eligibility. The state Parole Board sharply limited supervised release of inmates after Dominic Cinelli shot officer John Maguire of Woburn in the middle of a robbery last December. Since then, the state has approved only 35 percent of parole requests through summer this year, compared to 58 percent the year before.
David C. Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, said years of evidence shows more eligible prisoners should be sent to lower-security facilities.
“We know that stepping prisoners down progressively and allowing them to have more responsibility works,’’ he said. “More prisoners in medium and maximum mean more prisoners released directly from medium and maximum prisons, and everything we know shows that that’s bad for public safety.’’
But given the unpredictability and volatility of some inmates, the state should be wary of permitting too many inmates in lower-security prisons, especially inmates such as Tamik Kirkland with a history of violent behavior, said Francis Bloom, a Wilbraham lawyer representing Darryl King, the barber who survived shots that Kirkland allegedly fired in Springfield.
Kirkland, who had been in prison for weapons offenses stemming from a 2008 shooting in Springfield, had also been incarcerated in 2003 after being convicted of selling cocaine and illegally carrying firearms. He escaped in April after learning that his mother, Victoria Davis, had been grazed by bullets in an apparent attempt to kill her, and he was allegedly seeking revenge.
“Unless it’s just drunk drivers or those without a history of violence, they ought to have a fence, or some other sort of perimeter security,’’ Bloom said.
Sergeant Delaney of the Springfield Police Department said there also should be better coordination about prisoners between police and correction officers. He said officials at MCI-Shirley initially blamed police for not alerting them that Kirkland’s mother had been shot shortly before he escaped, information prison officials said would have prompted them to move Kirkland to a more secure facility.
But Delaney said they had no easy way of making the connection, given that mother and son had different last names. “We don’t have a questionnaire to use to ask victims if they know someone in prison,’’ he said. “It’s not something we do. Almost everyone we have contact with has someone they know in prison.’’
State Representative Jennifer Benson, who represents Shirley, said she has urged the state to ensure they have enough officers on duty at all times and to alert the public as quickly as possible about any future escapes.
“It was very concerning that [Kirkland] could walk away and commit the crimes he did,’’ she said. “These issues continue to weigh on me.’’
. . .
On the stately grounds of the MCI-Shirley minimum-security prison, which still has some brick buildings from the days when it was a Shaker village, the only real barrier to an inmate running for the woods is his own choice.
Not only are there no fences around the perimeter, but there are usually at most 16 correction officers during a day shift and 10 at night, looking after about 320 inmates. And many prisoners leave the grounds to rake leaves or do other jobs.
One morning in June, Captain Richard Tremblay watched a crew in orange shirts push lawn mowers through a cemetery in Lancaster. He said correction officers must keep a log to account for the inmates’ whereabouts once an hour.
If an inmate runs, he said, they are not authorized to chase them. The protocol is for the correction officer to call police, round up the other inmates, and take them back to the prison immediately.
In addition to facing more time in prison, state prisoners caught after escaping are also sent back to higher-security prisons and may be required to stay for a time in a segregation unit, where inmates spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.
Of the 20 inmates who escaped in the past three years, 19 have been arrested, all within four months, Department of Correction officials said. Four of those fugitives, including Kirkland, were charged with new crimes while on escape, though the charges were dismissed against two of them. Correction officials could not say whether the others had committed crimes while they were at large.
But those cleared for community work crews must have first held a job inside the prison, and they rarely cause problems. “These guys aren’t looking for trouble,’’ Tremblay said.
Eligible for parole in two years, Maurice Williams, 49, who was serving up to 12 years for armed robbery, said he wants to get out the right way. By working on a crew, he earns $3 a day and five days per month off his sentence. “I’m just trying to go home,’’ he said. “I don’t want to have to look over my shoulder the rest of my life.’’
Still, for most prisoners near the end of their sentence, the relative freedoms of minimum security offer a path to acclimate to society, providing practice holding a job, overcoming temptations, and learning to live with greater independence, which is why many were livid when Kirkland disappeared and allegedly went on his shooting spree.
Three months after the escape, department officials were using cranes to mount large grates to cover the windows in the old building that Kirkland fled. They installed new lighting, alarms, and motion-detection devices to make it less likely that someone could exit the dorms at night. And they said they had heightened covert surveillance.
“Our security procedures are sound,’’ said Scott Anderson, the acting superintendent of MCI-Shirley, adding there was no plan to build a fence around the prison. “It’s difficult to predict all human behavior, but we have put thousands through this, and they’re evaluated and assessed at every step. If we have concerns, we bring them back to higher security.’’
The new atmosphere at the minimum-security prison has disturbed inmates such as Gerald Fitzpatrick, 39, who was serving up to nine years for armed robbery. He lived in the same dorm as Kirkland - who is now at the nearby Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, the maximum-security prison in Shirley - and said every inmate there has been affected by the escape.
“It feels like we’re all being held responsible because of his nonsensical decision,’’ he said. “It put us all in jeopardy. We’re just trying to do our time and go home.’’