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The Untold Story Of What Happened At An Overcrowded West Virginia Jail After The Chemical Spill

The Untold Story Of What Happened At An Overcrowded West Virginia Jail After The Chemical Spill

By Christie Thompson

When roughly 10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked into a West Virginia watershed this January, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency. Officials shut down schools, deployed the National Guard, and rallied volunteers to bring water and support to the 300,000 people without potable water.

But in the state’s emergency response, there was one group that many forgot: the 429 prisoners locked in Charleston’s overcrowded jail, who were entirely dependent on the state to provide them clean water.

The only article that looked at the spill’s impact on inmates was a small, glowing report published two months later in the Charleston Daily Mail. Jail officials trumpeted their success at “protecting” inmates by providing a “plentiful supply of bottled water.”

Joe DeLong, executive director of the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority, told the paper inmates were given eight bottles of water a day and that they had “essentially no access to the contaminated water.” Before the jail returned to using tap water on January 18, DeLong said the jail went through a “very extensive” flushing process that lasted two to three days. They said they weren’t aware of any inmates reporting health problems related to chemical exposure.

In many ways, the jail seemed to be one of the safest places in Charleston after the spill. Except that much of it wasn’t true.

Interviews with multiple current and former inmates, their family members and internal documents obtained by ThinkProgress tell a very different story of what happened inside South Central Jail, where many inmates have yet to be tried or are being detained for minor offenses.

Inmates say they were sometimes given as little as 16 oz. of water a day. Without enough clean water to drink, brush their teeth and wash their face, many say they resorted to using contaminated tap water. The jail went back to using the tap water full-time only eight days after the spill, after what inmates say was a brief, perfunctory running of the taps. Many prisoners interviewed by ThinkProgress say they suffered a myriad of health problems after exposure to MCHM and other chemicals present in the water supply.

“We got three 8 oz. jugs of water a day. I don’t think that’s enough water. We thought we was going to pass out,” said former inmate Perry Changes, who was transferred out of South Central in February.

Documents obtained by ThinkProgress show guards were only told to provide inmates with four 8-oz. servings of water a day. After inmates complained, officials decided five servings should be “sufficient,” according to internal emails. A heavily-redacted jail log shows flushing occurred in a single day, not three.

According to guidelines from the Institute of Medicine, men over 19 years old should be drinking roughly 100 oz. of water a day (over three-quarters of a gallon) to stay hydrated. Women need around 73 oz. (over half a gallon) a day.

In response to the documents and inmates’ allegations, jail officials said some of the information provided to the paper was in fact untrue.

A spokesman from the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety confirmed inmates were given far less than eight bottles a day, and that the flushing process was much less extensive than what jail staff initially described.

While the jail initially said there had been no health concerns, multiple inmates say they suffered problems ranging from minor rashes to respiratory infections and fainting spells. Prisoners also described a policy implemented after the spill, which could land someone in solitary confinement for asking to see a nurse too many times.

Inmates’ claims of abuse were first told to volunteers with the West Virginia Clean Water Hub and Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survivals in mid-February. Since then, volunteers with the two groups have communicated with over 50 inmates, almost all of whom they say shared a similar story of deprivation and exposure in the weeks and months following the chemical spill.

“They’ve had no choice but to be exposed to the chemicals, they’ve had minimal access to clean water, and they’ve faced harsh consequences for standing up for their rights to access safe water and health care,” advocates wrote in a report published today.

The Drain of Dehydration

Changes is tall with wire-frame glasses, and hides his sand-colored hair under a camouflage baseball cap. He grew up in rural Boone County, West Virginia, a half-hour drive out of Charleston and just a few miles down the road from the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his girlfriend Crystal, her daughter, and her sister and her sister’s fiance. He’s released on probation now, and hopes to land a job at a nearby sawmill where friends of his work.

He lights another cigarette and adjusts in his recliner as he remembers growing up without tap water. “We had well water. If you washed your clothes it turned your clothes red,” he said. “We had to go to the laundromat, buy jugs of water to cook with.”

Nine years after his family got indoor plumbing, Changes was locked up at South Central and back to living without clean water. He was arrested in September on charges of breaking and entering and burglary.

An inmate in Changes’ “pod” had broken a window, so they were all on lockdown when the water was first shut off. He said the guards didn’t tell him much. All he knew was that there was an emergency, and everyone in Charleston was without water.

When the lockdown was lifted two days later, he finally got the chance to watch the channel 13 news. As he listened to newscasters describe the coal-cleaning chemicals in the water he had been drinking, “We was all stressing,” he said. “‘Cause hell. We was thirsty.”

Inmates said they had a choice: They could drink the sweet-tasting water that might make them sick. Or they could deal with the inevitable drain of severe dehydration.

As inmate Jamaa Johnson described it in a letter to West Virginia Clean Water Hub volunteers, “My head hurt like a hangover for days.”

Many resorted to desperate measures. Inmate David Burgess said some were selling the 8-oz. bottles of water for $1.60 a piece.

“I saw a guy make coffee out of toilet water,” said inmate Michael Moss.

Jail officials said this was “a learning process” in how to respond to such a crisis. “The emails show what we initially thought would be sufficient was not, and we were responsive to that,” said Lawrence Messina, communications director at West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. “We [should] make sure that if anything we do better the next time this sort of thing happen.”

Messina said his colleague Joe DeLong “either misspoke or maybe misunderstood” when he said inmates received eight bottles of water a day, and that he understood inmates were receiving five after jail staff increased the amount.

“I’ve spoken to him about that and he doesn’t recall saying it that way,” he said.

Messina later called back to add that jail staff were now telling him mess halls had jugs of water available for inmates to drink from during meal times, which he had not been told about until then. No inmates reported access to such jugs, nor were they referenced in documents discussing inmates’ access to water.

The jail’s initial assertion that inmates had “essentially no access to contaminated water” has also been disputed by inmates. The jail maintains that water was only available to flush the toilets and did not come through the taps.

But many prisoners claim they could access tap water when it was periodically turned on. “We’d be filling up every jug we had,” Changes said. “We had to drink something.”

A former South Central corrections officer said he was also told by corrections officers that inmates were only receiving three small bottles of water a day, and that they still had access to tap water. When he called to see if any guards could use some extra water, he said the jail’s office told him the same information.

“They’re criminals and they’re the worst of the worst, yes, but they’re people and at the same time,” said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous due to his current position in West Virginia law enforcement. “It’s the state’s responsibility to take care of those people. That doesn’t mean you give them hugs, it just means you make sure their basic needs are met. Water is one of them.”

“Just Like Drinking That Chemical Out Of a Tank”

After the water ban was lifted, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin addressed whether the water was safe to drink in a press conference. “It’s your decision,” he said. “If you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking with this water, then use bottled water.”

Unless, of course, you’re in jail. South Central inmates went back to bathing, cooking and drinking tap water as soon as the Governor ended the state of emergency in their zone. Jail officials say they stopped providing bottled water after January 17, eight days after the spill was detected.

But while the do-not-use advisory had ended, the health risks had not. Local hospitals reported an increase in emergency room visits after some returned to using the tap water. Water testing continued to show multiple chemicals present in the water supply. And schools were again dismissed when the signature licorice-smell of MCHM resurfaced.

Most West Virginians impacted by the spill continued to avoid drinking the water. A poll conducted by the Kanawha County Public Health Department found that only 36 percent of those surveyed had returned to drinking tap water by the end of April.

“Funny it’s March and restaurants still are using bottled water. Nobody cared in here,” wrote inmate Jamaa Johnson.

His fiance Ayesha Boatwright was “disgusted” the jail returned so quickly back to using tap water. “I still don’t drink the water. My cat drinks bottled water,” she said, while waiting for her weekly no-contact visit with Johnson. “I was afraid. That’s my fiance. They okayed the water before it was ok.”

Officials said they flushed the jail’s whole water system before returning to use the tap water. In response to a FOIA request for documentation, the jail provided a one-page handwritten log from January 14th. “Flushed all water supply” was written for several wings of the jail and one of the three pods that house inmates.

Many inmates say they were briefly taken out of their cell while guards and a maintenance worker ran the taps and flushed the toilets.

“After two to three minutes they said good to go you can drink the water,” Changes said. “It tasted real strong. Just like drinking that chemical out of a tank.”

Messina said the jail followed West Virginia American Water’s protocol for flushing the system. He said staff ran the taps for 20 minutes in every sink, toilet and water fountain throughout the facility, and flushed the hot water tanks over the course of 24 hours, not two to three days as the jail originally claimed.

I think that’s a basic tenet of public health, is to be on the side of caution.

In comparison, flushing that occurred in local schools was far more rigorous. It happened multiple times, for 30 to 45 minutes at each tap, with the assistance of the West Virginia National Guard and a licensed sanitarian from the county public health department. Water within schools was also tested before students returned to drinking the water.

“In an emergency circumstance when a lot of unknown exists, you must take any and all precaution to protect the most vulnerable population amongst us,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, Health Officer and Executive Director at Kanawha Charleston Health Department. “I think that’s a basic tenet of public health, is to be on the side of caution.”

Messina said his office hadn’t considered similar measures because they hadn’t heard any complaints.

Jail staff wrote on February 10 that the “health dept came and took water testing.” But both the county and state health department say they haven’t had any interaction with the jail since the spill and have no record of any testing ever taking place. Messina and other jail officials said they had never heard of any water testing inside the jail, and did not have results available.

Inmates say the water carried the taste of MCHM for months. “The water was still bad but they said it wasn’t,” said former inmate Terry Davis, who went back to drinking bottled water when he was released in March. “It had the smell, like licorice. It was nasty.”

“It was the end of March before it started tasting decent,” inmate Eric Ayers said.

Test results from private homes suggest MCHM remained in the water supply weeks after the water ban ended. Environmental consultants Downstream Strategies found MCHM in 40 percent of the private homes they tested between 1 1/2 and three weeks after the spill.

“They waited to lift the ban until water monitoring data at the intake in the Elk River was below a certain level,” said Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the water delivered to customers was safe.”

Sent to Solitary for Getting Sick

There remain more questions than answers about the risk of exposure to crude MCHM, the compound chemical leaked by Freedom Industries. The primary study being consulted by health officials was conducted by a company that produced the chemical, and tested the substance on lab animals rather than people.

“What we know is that after the do-not-use order was lifted, people seem to have suffered a lot of health [effects],” said Dr. Gupta. West Virginians have reported health problems related to drinking the water, coming in contact with it and inhaling its vapors, Gupta notes. “We know most of those symptoms included nausea, abdominal pains, respiratory symptoms, eye irritation. These types of symptoms are consistent across the data set.”

Many inmates reported similar health problems. “After water was turned on, I had to go to the medical unit because I felt pain in my liver. The medical unit took a blood test, but I never got the results back,” wrote inmate Jason Clendenin in in a letter to West Virginia Water Hub volunteers. “A couple of days later I was standing in the chow line, and got dizzy and got lost eyesight. A guy behind me caught me when I fell.”

Inmate Ray Legg said that after his first few days at South Central at the end of January, he started feeling what he thought was a head cold coming on. “I was experiencing dizziness, runny nose, stuffy nose, headaches, tightness in chest, shortness of breath, coughing (although nothing came up at first), sneezing, etc.,” he wrote. “I got so sick that I layed in bed, (my mat on the floor because there are no bunks open) for 2 days. The pressure in my head was so great I thought my head might explode.”

Messina said officials knew of “five sick calls that were attributed to the water.”

ThinkProgress requested a tally of the monthly total of inmate requests for medical attention from June 2013 to present. In response to a FOIA, jail officials provided a handwritten list of numbers for the months requested. The figures provided show no significant increase in inmates’ health concerns.

Those numbers diverge from what health officials reported among the general population, where hospitals reported an increase in emergency room visits. A recent survey by the Kanawha Charleston Health Department estimates nearly 1 in 3 affected West Virginians (as many as 100,000 people) experienced negative health impacts, but most did not seek medical treatment.

Representatives from PrimeCare Medical, the contractor that provides healthcare for all West Virginia jails, did not respond to a request for comment.

In February, inmates say they were notified of a new policy. Anyone that made more than three sick calls in a month would be moved to medical isolation until they saw a doctor. If there weren’t any bunks there, inmates say they could be put in solitary confinement.

“Now because medical is so full, they put you in segregation. They had the notice hung on our doors and on one of the medicine carts,” said inmate David Burgess. “They were posted after the water spill. I’ve been here a year and I ain’t never seen anything like that before.”

Jail officials originally said they had never heard of the policy. Later, they said PrimeCare Medical had posted “some kind of policy” in February, but that they did not know the details.

Inmate Roberta Stewart said she was held in isolation for eight days after asking to see a nurse four times in a month. She’s had earaches, headaches and blurred vision ever since the spill. Stewart said she filed a grievance, but never received a response.

“I’ve never been so sick in my life,” she said of the health problems she’s had for the last several months. “Everything from my head to my chest hurts. I can’t get no relief.”

Overcrowded and Understaffed

South Central Jail was in a state of crisis long before the chemical spill. Many inmates that are supposed to be housed in the state’s overcrowded prisons are instead languishing in local jails. South Central has been called “the worst in the state” when it comes to overcrowding. It now houses 476 inmates — over 50 percent above the jail’s intended capacity. Many are sleeping two and three to cells built for one. Sixteen inmates are currently sleeping on mats on the floor.

Several inmates said they “can’t wait” to be transferred to a state facility. There they have access to more classes and programming, and are given more than the one hour of recreation in a concrete yard that they get at South Central.

Messina said “inmate crowding has been a significant issue in this state,” but that West Virginia is “trying to find ways to be smart about who we put behind bars.”

The jail has also struggled to keep corrections officers on staff. “It’s virtually impossible to recruit and keep good people as corrections officers at $22,500 a year,” Steve Tucker, former South Central Regional Jail administrator, told the Charleston Daily Mail in 2012. “The good people we do get, we work them to death, they burn out, and then they’re gone.”

That’s led to a jump in assaults by and on inmates and a breakdown in the facilities. Even before the water shortage, Tucker reported in 2011 that jail officials received about 170 to 220 complaints a day about plumbing and water.

At least two “pods” of inmates staged a protest to demand more water in the days after the spill. One unit was put on lockdown and not allowed out of their cells. Others say they were punished with 15 days in solitary confinement.

Michael Moss was one of several inmates that said he refused to return to his cell for lockdown one night, to protest the meager amount of water they’d been given. “We told them, ‘we just want water,” Moss said. “They told us to get back in our cell and we could talk about it.” The next day, Moss said, they were taken to “the hole” for “inciting a riot” and “obstruction.”

Several inmates said they had filed grievances but had either not heard back or received responses saying they had been denied. Multiple family members also said they called the jail to complain about their loved ones’ access to water, but weren’t given any answers.

“I’ve called there several times, and they get you off the phone as soon as possible,” said Gwendolyn Mitchell, whose only son William Young is locked up at South Central.

Inmates have circulated two petitions which include allegations of not having access to enough clean water following the chemical spill. “We (the inmates) have been forced to drink MCHM contaminated water, survive staff’s excessive force & constant neglect, and deal with constant hunger due to insufficient food services,” wrote inmate Eric Ayers in February. His petition has so far been signed by 23 inmates.

The other was drafted with the help of West Virginia Water Hub volunteers, and is still making its way around the jail.

Several law firms that handle prisoner rights cases are looking into the allegations. All declined to comment on the issue before they decided whether to file a formal complaint.

Messina said he had only heard of one grievance related to the spill, but that his department would look further into inmate complaints. “The state is now undergoing a review of how it handled the water crisis. I think it is absolutely appropriate to look at the amount of water provided to inmates,” he said.

Emergency Response for Everyone But Inmates

South Central inmates’ allegations raise uncomfortable questions beyond this one jail in this one city in West Virginia. When disaster strikes, who provides for the prisoners? The push for more disaster preparedness has largely left inmates — those most at the mercy of the government — behind.

“Emergency preparedness is a topic of particular relevance in the correctional context because, unlike other Americans, prisoners have been deprived of their ability to care for themselves,” wrote American University law professor Ira P. Robbins, whose research looked at the abuse of New Orleans inmates in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “When prisoners’ safety is not planned for, the results are both tragic and unconstitutional.”

During the West Virginia water crisis, officials at the West Virginia National Guard, the Department of Health and Human Resources, and the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management all said they had almost no interaction with the jail.

“We don’t get in the way,” said Paul Howard, director of planning and response for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Inmates say the jail’s inadequate emergency response denied them their right to clean water. But the real harm to prisoners may not surface for many years.

“What we do not know is what are the long-term health impacts,” said Dr. Gupta, of exposure to MCHM. “We do not know what is the cancer risk, what is the danger to pregnant women.”

Many West Virginians are left fearing what health problems might arise decades down the road. But inmates might be at even bigger risk. “They’ve had a more extreme exposure than the typical West Virginia American Water customer,” said lawyer Kevin Thompson, who is representing affected West Virginians in a class-action lawsuit. “The typical customer had the power of freedom. They didn’t have to drink the water, they didn’t have to stay, they didn’t have to take showers.”

Phyllis and Kennith Johnson, Jamaa’s parents, said they’re outraged the jail exposed their son to such risks. “They’re taking chances with these inmates’ lives. That water could have killed somebody,” Phyllis said. “They could be 60 and trying to figure out what happened. I didn’t know human beings could treat other human beings like that.”

Kennith remembers his son calling home after the water crisis hit. “He was like, ‘Dad I really don’t know what I should do.’ And we couldn’t help him.”

So Phyllis did the only thing she could do. “What can you say? I told my son to pray over that water.”

Originally published on Think Progress ( on May 21, 2014, and reprinted with permission of the author.


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