New Jersey Legionnaires Outbreak Kept Quiet In State Prisons

After one person died and another spent a month in a coma, state officials found Legionella bacteria in the water at two New Jersey prison.

After Jamil Robinson drank the water from the infirmary at East Jersey State Prison, he became so violently ill that prison officials quietly sent him to the hospital. On February 9, Robinson was placed in a medically induced coma, which he stayed in for more than 30 days. When he woke up on March 12, nurses told him he had contracted Legionnaires’ disease, a rare form of pneumonia.

Unlike many pneumonias, Legionnaires’ isn’t spread from person to person but rather through water contaminated with a bacterium called Legionella — meaning that if Robinson had contracted it, anyone else sharing his water source was likely at risk. If left untreated, the infection can be fatal; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 10 people who contract Legionnaires’ will die. But Robinson said that by the time of his return, people incarcerated at EJSP had heard nothing about Legionnaires’ disease or Legionella contamination from prison officials.

“Everybody was surprised,” Robinson told The Intercept. He’s a well-known figure at EJSP, where he is president of a public speaking forum, and other people at the facility had been asking what had happened to him. When he told them, they were shocked.

Staff never announced that anyone had contracted Legionnaires’ disease, according to Robinson and one other person incarcerated at EJSP, who requested to speak anonymously for fear of retaliation. And they didn’t tell people to stop drinking the water until two weeks ago, Robinson said. According to both Robinson and the other person, prison officials did not provide free bottled water to anyone except corrections staff.

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