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.
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
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.
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.”