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Incarcerated Women Say Drinking Water Scarce During Power Outage

Prison cell bars
Prison cell bars

Parts of the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women (KCIW) in Shelby County have been without power since Thursday, leaving all but two of the prison’s six housing units without air conditioning. 

This is not the first time that the KCIW has had power outages. 

Department of Corrections spokesperson Lisa Lamb says the outage is due to a main switch gear failure.

“We are working diligently to repair the system but due to its age and the availability of parts, the ETA on full repair is several days,” Lamb said, in an email to WFPL Saturday.

Generators are keeping the lights on at the facility, and visitation has been suspended until the power is restored.

This comes after a week of extreme heat in Kentucky, with heat advisories in effect most of the week, and temperatures up to 96 degrees on Thursday, when the outage began.

While waiting for repairs, women in the facility have been allowed to wear t-shirts and shorts rather than their standard uniforms.

Lamb said they also have industrial fans running on emergency power and have given “extra ice and bottled water” to the women incarcerated there.

Melissa Blevins is one of the 683people incarcerated in KCIW. She said prison staff have been rationing these basic human necessities. 

“I think it was Thursday or Friday, they gave us two little bottles of water, per person, but they never gave us any since,” Blevins said. “In the morning between nine and 10, we walk up on another yard to another building and they give us two scoops [of ice] in our cooler. Then, at nighttime between 9 and 11, we go again and get two scoops.”

While the women have access to running water, Blevins said staff told them it’s contaminated, and isn’t safe to drink straight from the tap.

“Our water’s been really dirty and we've had to boil our water to even drink it,” Blevins said. “But that was an issue before this electric [outage].”

Since the power has been out, Blevins said, “there’s nowhere to boil our water. So people aren’t drinking the water.”

[video width="350" height="350" mp4="https://wfpl.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/MelissaBlevins.mp4"][/video]

Melissa Blevins describes current conditions in the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women

That’s not the only problem that’s persisted prior to the outage, according to Blevins. She said she and others have raised concerns about frequent hot water and air conditioning disruptions with the Department of Corrections in Frankfort. 

“We go days without even having hot water and then they'll fix it and then it goes back. Like, I don't know what they're doing and it's been like this for years,” Blevins said. 

She added some of the women are running out of clean clothes and, with the power outage affecting the laundry facilities, they’ve resorted to unconventional measures. 

“They had to hand wash them with cold water and hang them up to dry. But it's so humid here and we have no air conditioning ━ it’s taking forever [for clothes to dry],” Blevins said. “So, they're taking them outside and into the day room and letting them air dry. But then you have officers that come in here and start yelling about that.”

Blevins lives in what she calls an honor dorm, a building reserved for women who exhibit good behavior ━ like, no recent write-ups or rule violations ━ and those awaiting parole hearings. 

One of the perks about living there, she said, is fridge and freezer access, which allows building residents to access foods they wouldn’t otherwise be able to buy from the prison commissary. Blevins said much of it was affected as a result of the power outage.

“We just went to the store, to the canteen, on Wednesday. So, a lot of our food is spoiling, because it's not keeping it cold,” Blevins said. 

She said prison staff plugged it into the back-up power source on Saturday after pleas from women who worried their money was going to waste.

WFPL reached out to spokespersons with the Department of Corrections after speaking with Blevins on Sunday ━ including through calls, text messages and emails. But, none responded.

Blevins’ husband, Bart Bomback said he’s concerned about his wife’s wellbeing at the prison. 

“I’m worried about her health in general,” said Bomback, “I know heat-related illness is a serious issue.”

Orjun Sinha is a nephrologist ━ doctor of adult kidney disease ━ at the Indiana University School of Medicine. He said there are health risks associated with prolonged exposure to extreme heat. 

“Inmates in general are going to be more at risk because they don’t have control over their environment,” Sinha said. “With the heat conditions, air conditioning not working ━ inmates who have medical conditions speak up, they get ignored ━ this goes on for several days and then people start getting really sick or dying, would be my worry.”

Sam Crankshaw, a spokesperson with the ACLU of KY, said urgent action is needed. “If the state chooses to incarcerate a person, they take on the responsibility of taking care of that person,” he said. “It’s ridiculous that they would put these incarcerated people in this position while the hospitals are overwhelmed.”


Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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