Denying Inmates Showers Is a Terrible Solution to California's Water Crisis

California prisons are cutting outdoor showers, but its the one way inmates have to get clean every day.


Droughts like the one California’s struggling through now are going to become more common, that’s just a fact. But it’s not idealistic to think we can handle it without sacrificing people’s basic human dignity.

Which brings us to the California Department of Corrections’ announcement that it will cease all outside showers for inmates who’ve just completed a hard outdoor workout. We’re not asking your heart to bleed for a mass murderer here. Remember that California’s prison systems are so overcrowded the U.S. Supreme Court found that inmates’ health and safety were unconstitutionally compromised. That’s because the walls were crowded with thousands of nonviolent offenders, statistically at extremely low risk to re-offend, many of who received irrationally long sentences under the state’s third strike laws.

The L.A. Times reports that for most of those inmates, outdoor showers are the only way to get the doctor recommended daily wash to keep hygiene and health standards. Otherwise, they get three, five minute showers a week indoors, or are invited to try scrubbing up in the sink. Shower conditions have already been part of several lawsuits about the lack of humane conditions afforded to inmates.

But the prisons say they’re turning off the valves to meet state mandates for state water conservation.

“Yes, all showers outside of those in the housing units have been shut down as part of the statewide mandate to reduce water use by 25% due to the drought,” Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told the L.A. Times.

Yes, everyone on the West Coast is making sacrifices. It’s normal to see a bucket in a California shower to collect water as the shower heats up, and chefs in San Diego have long abandoned letting water drain over vegetables on a colander. More people are steaming their food instead of boiling it. Some of the reactions could even be called innovations, if you want to see a silver lining like U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and think about the longterm struggle we’ll all likely be facing sooner than we’d like. California’s shown a willingness to try anything reasonable and has even made a few breakthroughs, like the Orange County water reclamation plant, which is the country’s first to try controlled in-direct potable water reuse. I’m sure in another decade or so we’ll all be seeing “When you shower alone, you shower with America’s enemies!” posters in the post office window. But, as the Times reports, this is a minimal amount in the big picture and nothing compared to the water sucked up by industrial agriculture, though I’m sure that ag has much better lobbyists than inmates. Let’s not make hellish conditions even more hellish when they don’t have to be.