On Jan. 23, prisoners in Flint, Michigan’s Genessee County Jail were told to drink bottled water. It was a curious switch for those who had been locked up since October: After Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency on Dec. 15 to decry the lead-contaminated water being piped into the homes of Flint residents, the inmates were provided with bottled water for five days. But after that, they all drank from the taps again.
As the water crisis continued to explode outside the jail’s walls, the inmates were told the tap water had been tested and was safe to use, according to an exclusive report from Democracy Now! Between that brief window in October and last Friday, no bottled water was made available to them.
“In jail we were drinking from the taps, our food was made from the taps,” former Genessee inmate Jody Cramer told Democracy Now!
Meanwhile, jail employees drank filtered bottled water in front of the prisoners.
“The deputies would not drink from the faucets; they all drank bottled water,” said Cramer. “But we were consistently told the water was good.”
Cramer, who was released this week, knew something was wrong. When he called home to speak to his family, his mother told him the water wasn’t OK. She called the jail repeatedly and was told the facility was using a filtration system.
Even pregnant women in the jail were consuming the lead-tainted water, according to the report. When the switch was made last week, just four bottles of water were provided to each inmate per day—both for drinking and for brushing their teeth.
The revelation about Flint’s jail is the latest flash point in an ongoing catastrophe that has garnered the attention of the FBI, Michigan’s attorney general, and Congress. In April 2014, Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an unelected emergency manager to the city. In a cost-cutting measure, the official switched the city’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The river’s highly corrosive water then caused lead to leach from the city’s pipes into its water supply. In spite of complaints and ample evidence that the water was tainted and unsafe, officials failed to act for months.
It isn’t the first time the health of prisoners has been neglected amid a water crisis. In 2014, more than 400 prisoners in Charleston, West Virginia, weren’t provided with an adequate water supply during the state’s chaotic response to a massive chemical spill. After the spill, which left thousands without potable water, inmates were a last priority for state officials. Some were provided with as little as 16 ounces of clean water a day, according to an investigation by ThinkProgress, which they had to both consume and use for personal hygiene. Just eight days after the spill, the tap water was turned back on for use. Prisoners reported myriad health problems from using and consuming the water, which was tainted with the compound chemical MCHM.
In September 2014, a complaint was filed on behalf of an inmate in Grimes County, Texas, alleging the jail permitted inmates to drink arsenic-tainted well water. When the Texas Department of Criminal Justice requested that the city connect the jail to an untainted municipal water supply, the city refused, citing the high cost of drilling a new well, according to The Navasota Examiner. In response to the complaint, the jail’s warden, Donald Bilnoski, told the inmates that bottled water was unnecessary and invited those who were concerned to purchase it from the jail with their own money.