Opinion: Outbreak of Legionnaires’ may be costly to state

Outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in prisons are occasionally downplayed by the officials in charge of penal institutions.

Earlier this year, it was discovered that Illinois officials made misleading statements during an outbreak in six prisons.

When disease outbreaks happen in prisons, officials may not want a panic to erupt, particularly among family members of those incarcerated. And certainly state officials don’t want to incur lawsuits about medical treatment for preventable diseases.

On Dec. 1, 2021, media outlets in Indiana reported that three inmates at Pendleton Correctional Facility had confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease, a lung infection caused by Legionella bacteria. The bacteria spreads through aerosolized water droplets, which can be inhaled, causing illness. An inmate died from the disease.

In early May, five inmates, claiming to have contracted the disease, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the state violated their rights to adequate conditions while in confinement and to medical care.

The lead plaintiff claimed he suffered chills, fever, diarrhea and possible kidney problems after bathing and drinking the contaminated water. The five prisoners are seeking $1 million each in damages and the replacement of lead piping. They also want outside medical care from a licensed provider.

Two offenders claim they did not know about the contamination until Dec. 3. One claimed he had not received clean drinking water, as in bottled water, by Dec. 12.

While these men committed heinous crimes, including two murderers and a rapist, that does not mean their complaints are meritless. Illness should not be disregarded.

After all, staff members and guards drink the same water as the inmates. Additional lawsuits have also been filed citing environmental hazards and unsafe drinking water,

On April 22, the Indiana Department of Correction supplied an update about the outbreak, saying it properly responded to the outbreak:

“IDOC also took immediate steps to limit further exposure to the bacteria for both staff and incarcerated individuals by installing point of use filters on shower heads within the facility, which provide a barrier against waterborne contaminants, including Legionella bacteria, allowing the incarcerated population to shower safely.

“In addition, staff began working on a long-term, facility-wide plan to further treat the water in the facility with a mixed oxidant solution system to eliminate Legionella from the water supply.”

But as of April 22, the source of the bacteria had not been found.

One good note, however, is that a mixed oxidant solution, which can be prepared onsite, can be a cost-saving replacement for chloride and bromine. So, a proper mix can reduce claims resulting in lawsuits.

That element should only be a secondary consideration in regard to the health of staff and inmates. Both groups should feel secure and safe, even inside the walls of an Indiana prison — security from physical attack and safety from preventable diseases.

Inmates might not have a right to receive information about unsanitary conditions. But inmates have a right to adequate medical care and basic concepts of dignity.

Indiana prison staff and inmates are entitled to safe drinking water.