CHICAGO (CN) – The Seventh Circuit had no patience Monday for officials who shut off water at an Illinois county jail for three days, denying them immunity in a lawsuit brought by inmates who claim they were deprived of adequate drinking water and forced to live without flushable toilets.
From Nov. 7 through Nov. 10, 2017, the water was shut off at the Lake County Adult Correctional Facility in downtown Waukegan, ostensibly to fix a water pump. Inmates at the seven-story facility were not informed beforehand about the shutoff.
For about three days, each inmate was given five bottles of water of indeterminate size per day for their personal use – to drink, brush their teeth, wash their hands and face, and take their medication.
Those who asked for more water were allegedly turned down, and detainees who repeatedly asked for more water were placed on lockdown.
Each cluster of cells in the 740-bed jail was also provided with a barrel of water to be used for bathing and flushing toilets, but detainees were forbidden to flush during the night.
This led to major toilet clogs, and left feces sitting in toilets throughout the jail for long periods of time, creating a foul odor and attracting insects.
Tapanga Hardeman and four other inmates sued Lake County and Sheriff Mark Curran in Chicago over the incident, claiming it deprived them of sufficient drinking water and created unsanitary conditions.
A federal judge denied the county and sheriff qualified immunity on the inmates’ claims, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed Monday.
“All but the most plainly incompetent jail officials would be aware that it is constitutionally unacceptable to fail to provide inmates with enough water for consumption and sanitation over a three-day period,” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Wood said, writing for a three-judge panel.
She said perhaps such incompetence could qualify for immunity if prison officials had swiftly acted once it became clear that inmates did not have enough water – but that’s not what happened.
“According to plaintiffs’ allegations, [Chief of Corrections David] Wathen provided a limited amount of water, he and his staff were quickly made aware that more water was needed both for consumption and for sanitation, and they failed to provide any additional water. Indeed, plaintiffs allege that Wathen punished them for continued water requests,” Wood continued.
Further, the officials are not entitled to immunity even if they can show they had a valid reason for shutting off the jail’s water for three days, the 20-page ruling states.
“Even cursory Internet research would have given Wathen a general idea of how much water the jail would need to allow the inmates to flush their toilets each day,” Wood said. “And if Wathen could not procure enough water to fix that problem, there was a still more obvious solution: portable toilets.”
U.S. Circuit Judges Joel Flaum and Diane Sykes also sat on the panel.
Lake County, pop. 705,000, begins just north of Chicago’s wealthy North Shore suburbs and extends to the Wisconsin state line.