By now, you’ve surely heard about the tainted drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan, an industrial city of about 100,000 located 70 miles northwest of Detroit. You’ve probably seen videos of angry residents displaying bottles of tap water from their homes, and were appalled to see those unappetizing samples ranged in color from beige to rusty brown. Or maybe you’ve seen press coverage of pop stars, rap singers and pro athletes donating money or delivering supplies of drinking water to affected homeowners.
You may also be aware of some of the places – private lawsuits, official and media investigations, political debates – where disputes are being aired over who’s responsible for not preventing or properly warning about and responding to the public health threat from elevated lead levels in Flint’s water (high levels of lead are especially dangerous to pregnant women, who face elevated risks of miscarriage, and infants and young children, who may suffer permanent brain damage or lasting harm to their nervous system and kidneys).
But here’s one aspect of the Flint water emergency you may not have heard about: a group of Flint residents who could well be the most victimized, and the least able to protect themselves: the hundreds of inmates of the Genesee County Jail, located in the county seat, Flint.
In a report aired in a Democracy Now! broadcast, recently released Genesee County Jail inmate Jody Cramer told of prisoners there were given bottled water for just five days after the mayor’s October declaration of emergency. The bottled water they received was for drinking, washing and all needs, and was less than half the daily amount for adults recommended by the National Academies of Sciences.
After that, for the next three months, inmates were forced to use the contaminated city water. The sheriff wrongly assured them the tap water was safe – though inmates noticed jail guards only drank bottled water.
The Flint water crisis first came to widespread public attention last October, when the city’s mayor announced an emergency and warned residents not to consume the lead-contaminated water. After the city switched – apparently for budgetary reasons – in April 2014 from getting its water from Detroit’s system to drawing it from the nearby Flint River, it failed to treat the city’s aging cast-iron water pipes with chemicals needed to prevent lead from leaching from the pipes into the water supply).
One ignored warning sign: Flint’s GM plant stopped using city water in its manufacturing, when it found the city water was corroding its auto parts. Testing showed there was so much lead in Flint’s water that what was running in the pipes of Flint homes satisfied environmental law’s definition of “toxic waste.”
While in the Flint jail, Cramer worked as a kitchen trustee, so he saw the lead-tainted city water routinely used in preparing inmate meals, including those for several pregnant prisoners. Except for the five days in October immediately after the mayor’s declaration of an emergency, until bottled water was restored this January 23, Genesee County Jail inmates had no choice – short of dying from thirst or starvation – other than to drink badly contaminated water and eat food prepared with it.
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident: in 2014 alone, similar episodes of failures to protect prisoners against known environmental hazards occurred in Charleston, West Virginia (inmates exposed to water contaminated by a severe chemical spill hazard) and Navasota, Texas (prisoners’ water contained four times allowable limits for arsenic).
Which raises the inevitable question: is this the best we can do?
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com