Sewage and the Disgusting Effects of Prison Overcrowding in California


Ken Hartman has served 37 years of his life sentence without the possibility of parole in the California prison system. Even though the state’s prisons were court-ordered to reduce the bloated prison population years ago, the problems of overpopulation persist and with it the inevitable issues that arise from crowded human warehouses.

In May 2011 the US Supreme Court upheld an order requiring California to reduce its state prison population to no more than 137.5 percent of its capacity within two years. Prior to the initiative the state’s prison population had risen to roughly 180 percent of its design capacity, and prisoners had become unable to receive routine medical or mental health care.

K Hartman
Ken Hartman in front of the Honor Yard at LAC

Ken Hartman is locked up in California State Prison-Los Angeles, which has a population of 3,539, making it 153.9 percent over capacity as of 2016.

Coupled with the external pressure of California’s extreme drought conditions, Hartman says things in the already-terrible facilities are getting more disgusting than ever.

The following is a re-print of Hartman’s recent op-ed published by

“Every day the toilet in my cell fills up with a disgusting brown backflow, and at least a couple of times a week there are chunks of someone else’s excrement floating in it. Since the implementation of flush restrictions and low-flow diaphragms here at California State Prison-Los Angeles County in Lancaster, these problems have grown much worse.

There are now more than 185 men packed into buildings designed for 100, and all of these men need to use the toilet facilities multiple times a day. It’s probably the most overlooked yet most consequential byproduct of prison overcrowding, and because California remains wedded to a purely punitive approach to corrections, the overcrowding continues unabated at this prison.

A few years ago flush restrictors were installed on all of the prisoner toilets that limit the number of flushes to two during any five-minute period. When they were first installed, we were assured custody and medical staff would be able to turn them off in cases of diarrhea and other difficulties that required more flushes than the baseline number. This assurance proved to be false. In a cell occupied by two men, both of whom are only feet from the toilet, the restrictors translate to full bowls and potential conflicts.

We objected to the additional restriction of a 15-minute penalty period for even attempting to flush more than twice in the five minutes allotted. Even for those not familiar with life in a six-by-ten-foot concrete box, it can’t be hard to imagine scenarios where a man accidentally tries to empty a stinking bowl too fast, trying to mollify an angry cellmate.

The next modification happened more recently: low-flow diaphragms. Without going too far down the pipes with details, real low-flow toilets have a different design that allows for an effective evacuation of the bowl with less water. In here, however, we have a jury-rigged, add-on system that simply provides less water to a toilet designed for more water. This means less water for fewer flushes, and that equals more problems. More problems with incomplete flushes, inadequate times to flush and tensions between men crammed into too small a space.

A couple of years ago the governor ordered all state agencies to cut water use by 20 percent in response to California’s drought. For most departments, this meant not watering lawns or not serving a glass of water in the cafeteria unless asked for—rational responses. In the prisons, the response was to cut back on showers, to remove showering facilities from the exercise yards, and to install the aforementioned toilet-altering gadgets, all of which greatly, and negatively, impacted the lives of prisoners. A response that was, frankly, irrational.

There’s still more to this irrational response. Because the pipes were designed for a greater amount of water, the incidences of clogging are increasing, the stench of backed-up sewers is a much more common occurrence, and the amount of overtime the institutional plumbers are working has exploded. It’s a perfect storm of bad consequences directly linked to the gross reliance on incarceration in this state.

The governor’s mandated water reductions could have been met in here by reducing the prison population, but that didn’t happen because the state remains fully committed to mass incarceration.

While the problems of toilet restrictions and shower access seem minor in the grand scheme of things, they are emblematic of far bigger systemic problems. Prisons are inherently violent and abusive, and their overcrowding inevitably leads to violations of basic human rights. Access to water and sanitation facilities, access to quality health care, and the ability to live a safe life are directly and inversely linked to the crowding of the prisons—and to imprisonment more generally.

Saving water in California is a vital issue that’s connected to our ability to survive in a changing climate. Not watering grass lawns in the desert and not wasting unasked-for water in the cafeteria are appropriate actions. Continuing to waste human lives in prisons and subjecting the most vulnerable to unhealthy policies are not appropriate actions.

When I walk into my cell and see a bowl full of brown water, I’m reminded of my status in the world; I’m reminded of my value. All the pious talk in the world about rehabilitation doesn’t change this ugly reality.

Kenneth E. Hartman is a member of the National Advisory Board of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming the criminal legal system. He was also featured in the Earth Island Journal/TruthOut exposé, “America’s Toxic Prisons.”

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