Prisoners Forced to Work for Showers Are Now Being Punished for Taking Them

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For the past 20 years, Steven Brooks has worked various jobs behind bars in California’s prisons in exchange for a shower. Before the pandemic, under severe drought conditions, Steven found this arrangement unhygienic, but in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and overcrowding in prisons, the 50-year-old has found it to be inhumane.

Steven came to prison in 1996 and to San Quentin in 2014. He doesn’t remember a time prior to 2015 when accessing water was limited or considered grounds for punishment. The grass was regularly watered. Sprinkler systems and water hoses were constantly used. The water fountains worked. Toilets flushed routinely.

Before water conservation measures were implemented in San Quentin, Steven knew he could shower after a day of sweating in the yard. Sometimes he’d shower in the morning and again at night. There was no one clocking time spent in the shower. People incarcerated at the prison could shower every day, unless it was on an emergency lockdown.

But then-Governor Jerry Brown’s executive order, proclaiming a state of emergency due to severe drought conditions in California, set a new precedent around water. The order called for a 25 percent reduction of water usage on a statewide level, but made no mention of how to conserve water in prisons. In the absence of clear direction, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) developed its own protocol. San Quentin’s warden at the time, Ron Davis, issued a bulletin imposing water restrictions, including limiting showers to three times a week and for five minutes (except for culinary, plant operations, and Prison Industry Authority workers), as well as the closure of all outdoor showers and kitchen hoses. Those incarcerated at San Quentin who have chosen to go to school or work a non-CDCR approved job are restricted to three five-minute showers a week—on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

Over the years, Steven has observed that jobs that don’t uphold the prison economy are those that do not allow for more extensive shower access. Steven’s job as Journalism Guild Chairman at The San Quentin News, a newspaper written and produced by incarcerated people inside the facility, allows him a daily 5-minute shower. The regulations around water, he notes, are designed to maintain the prison’s facilities, to reinforce prison officials’ control, and perpetuate the prison industrial complex.

Bearing a Burden Not of Their Doing

California, like other similarly afflicted regions, has continued to experience record temperatures and a drought. So many, if not all, of CDCR’s and Warden Davis’ restrictions have remained in place under Warden Ron Broomfield, who was appointed in 2021. These regulations, Steven and others incarcerated at San Quentin attest, are used to coerce, punish, and control them under the auspices of conserving water. All the while, San Quentin, a maximum security facility and the oldest prison in California, is plagued by dripping showers, leaking faucets, and broken water mains throughout the facility.

While California’s current governor, Gavin Newsom, has ordered state agencies to conserve water, his office’s August 2022 document “California’s Water Supply Strategy: Adapting to a Hotter, Drier Future” makes no mention of limitations on any California residents’ showers. The strategy focuses less on individual conservation and more on state systems.

According to the LA Times, the emergency regulations allow for “a general exemption in the rules for water that’s necessary for public health and safety.” The Department of Corrections has written memos suggesting that prisoners should be allowed to shower every day during quarantines, but that’s not the reality. San Quentin officials cited Governor Newsom’s May 25, 2021, emergency drought proclamation and Warden Davis’s July 8, 2021 bulletin when, on September 3, 2022, they denied a grievance Steven filed in July 2022 requesting daily five minute showers for non-critical/essential workers. In the claim he writes: “inmates are unable to maintain their personal hygiene showering only 3 days a week with over 700 prisoners in the North block, overcrowding, poor ventilation and disease spread easily.” San Quentin prison officials are avoiding taking responsibility for how they restrict non-worker prisoners’ water access by displacing blame on the governor, because the restrictions can rise to the level of a constitutional violation. 

Publicly, CDCR has documented its water conservation initiatives, including allocating millions of dollars to retrofit toilets, faucets, showerheads, and urinals in correctional facilities across the state. All 35 California state prisons are committed to water conservation, but only some have implemented shower restrictions, which Steven reports are applied differently in some parts of San Quentin than in others, often depending on the custody personnel in charge. (CDCR didn’t respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.)

Many incarcerated people, Steven included, find emotional catharsis in exercise, particularly when most of their time is spent in double occupancy—11 feet long by 4 feet wide cells that leave only 3 feet between each incarcerated person’s 2.5 feet wide bunk bed and shared sink and toilet, with limitations on flushing. Amidst a pandemic, uncomfortable heat, and limited access to showers, Steven finds himself sitting amid the stench of musty flesh, athlete’s foot, and moldy laundry. Each day people incarcerated at San Quentin are forced to breathe in stale air of sweat, dirty mops, and viruses.

Rahsaan Thomas—writer, filmmaker, and co-host of Ear Hustle, a podcast inside San Quentin—said: “Showers were limited before the drought by requiring us to wait until noon for a shower. Visiting hours start at 7:30 AM, so an AM shower could come in handy… I love to workout and play basketball but because only ‘critical workers’ can shower, I can only bird bath. I respect that the drought is real, but so is living in a 6×9 space with another human being during Covid when doctors recommend washing your hands constantly to prevent infection spread. There needs to be more compromise.”

Working for Water and Being Punished for Using It

Today’s restrictions on water not only contrast with the norm in previous decades, water access has also been used to bribe and punish. “I remember when they gave inmates ducats [appointments] who refused to shower,” said Arthur Jackson, an incarcerated person at San Quentin who has been confined for over 30 years. “If officers searched your cell and it was filthy and you were filthy, they changed out all your linen and scheduled you for a shower.” Jackson said he personally witnessed these events as far back as 1992, and when he did time at other California state prisons.

In fact, Steven recalls that in the 1990s personal hygiene was a must. You could get a 115 rule violation report for being dirty. This could lead to loss of yard exercise, dayroom, canteen, or food package privileges. He witnessed what most people only see in sensationalized depictions of the carceral state: guards turning water hoses on unhygienic prisoners and worse. But as time passed, and the population began to double and triple, and water stopped falling from the sky, access to water began to dwindle. Steven has heard incarcerated people in other California facilities are offered extra meals in exchange for not showering. More common, though, he says, are cases of incarcerated people trading meals for shower access when in solitary confinement.

Steven explained that before the pandemic, he and others incarcerated at San Quentin would fill up water bottles to bring outside to drink from or cool themselves off with while working out. That is typically no longer allowed. Some incarcerated at San Quentin report that water bottles have been considered contraband and being caught with one could result in a record violation documented on their record. Title 15 Section 3006 of the The California Code of Regulations does not name water bottles among items designated as contraband. Interpretation and application of Section 3006 differs across facilities and within them, Steven says. The board of parole can and regularly does take rule violation reports into consideration when deliberating parole and release dates.

Other prisoners have received violations for taking showers outside of allotted days/times. Michael Moore received a violation for taking a shower during the day and time that only essential workers and showers for medical purposes were being allowed. Moore is not considered essential because he is enrolled at Mount Tamalpais College. He is a lifer who will have to go before a parole board to get released. Since this violation, Moore anticipates the board will view him and his case unfavorably.

“I was accused of maliciously breaking the rules and jeopardizing safety and security for taking a shower,” Moore said. “They don’t see education students as people who need daily showers.” Some incarcerated people have had parole dates postponed and have been ordered to take a criminal thinking class for taking a shower without permission, he adds.

Reports from incarcerated people about water restrictions arrive on the heels of the failure of a bill to outlaw involuntary servitude in California’s prison. Under state law, prisoners are required to work but without protections—a legacy of Jim Crow. The bill’s failure upholds that earning eight to 50 cents an hour and allowing the “right” to shower daily for just less than five minutes is not in violation of prisoners’ rights.

The pandemic has exposed a number of issues in prisons beyond unfair labor practices, including the impossible combination of water restrictions and overcrowding.

Water, Overcrowding, and Covid

Amid public health officials’ numerous suggestions for curtailing Covid-19’s spread, two of the most salient—regular hand washing and social distancing—are impossible at San Quentin. Since the 2020 outbreak that killed 28 prisoners and one guard, prison officials have not eased up on water restrictions, Steven reports. Steven has heard of numerous incarcerated people at San Quentin pursuing lawsuits over this and other inhumane conditions in the US District for the Northern District Court of California.

Steven saw firsthand how, during the outbreak of Covid-19 at San Quentin, it was just chaos—and it still is. When he had Covid-19, Steven and his negative cellmate were forced to quarantine together. There are countless stories of people who were negative but forced to stay in a cell with someone positive. San Quentin’s cell size, 49.5 square feet, is in violation of the American Correctional Association standard of 70 square feet per person if the person is incarcerated for more than 10 hours per day. Incarcerated people living in a cell size smaller than the regulation for lengthy periods of time can file suit against CDCR for violation of the eighth amendment—cruel and unusual punishment.

San Quentin was built for single-cell occupancy and a maximum population of 3,084. In April 2020 The Appeal reported that the prison’s north and west blocks were close to 200 percent capacity. San Quentin was the site of a particularly poor response to the virus. A judge found that officials there acted with “deliberate indifference” to the health of incarcerated people there, precipitating a court-ordered population reduction that argued overcrowding was the reason for the preventable spread of Covid-19 and the ensuing 28 deaths. CDCR temporarily reduced the prison’s population by 40 percent. But numbers are back to over capacity: 3,175 as of September 14, 2022.

More than anything else, the pandemic has exposed that California and the rest of the United States is not equipped to warehouse millions of people in prison.

The combination of Covid-19, overcrowding, and restricted water access is mentally paralyzing. Steven says it gets to the point where incarcerated people don’t want to think anymore. They get brain fog, become tired and fatigued, and want to sleep in response to feeling overwhelmed by the “deliberate indifference” to their well-being. The consensus of many inside San Quentin is that the place is designed to kill.

Despite the emotional and physical stress that overcrowding and limited water rights has caused those at San Quentin, Steven noted the upside of it: More than ever, people are focused on finding ways to get out, to avoid giving the system any more ammunition to keep them inside. He has noticed more people participating in self-help groups, considering emotional intelligence as an important skill to develop, and filing grievances and lawsuits. But even while people inside San Quentin are getting smarter about how to get out and stay out, people outside are failing to find ways to stop climate change from causing the droughts and high temperatures for which incarcerated people end up paying the price.