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Prison Ecology and the Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan

“Here’s your water filtration system. By the way, you have a warrant for your arrest.”

Jody Cramer, a former prisoner recently released from Michigan’s Genesee County Jail, said that was the story he heard from multiple other people who were locked up with him. Law enforcement officers distributing filters due to water contamination in the city were also serving warrants. Many of those arrested were jailed, and while they were awaiting trial and had not yet been convicted of a crime, potentially irreparable punishment may have begun the day they were incarcerated – as access to both uncontaminated water and the truth about it were hard to come by behind bars.

By now, much of the world knows that public officials in Michigan sat on their hands despite having knowledge that the public water system in the city of Flint was poisoning local residents with high concentrations of lead and Legionnaires Disease.

How far up the administrative ladder did such indifference go? Internal emails obtained through public records requests by the group Progress Michigan indicate that Governor Rick Snyder’s office was aware of a Legionnaires outbreak linked to using the Flint River as a city water source as early as March 2015. The disease has resulted in 10 deaths in Flint since June 2014, shortly after the city’s water supply was switched to the river, purportedly in an effort to save money.

The Genesee County Health Department declared a public health emergency in October 2015 due to high levels of lead in the city’s tap water. By the end of the year, Flint’s mayor had announced a state of emergency and the National Guard was distributing bottled water to local residents (a full year after the offices of state officials began receiving bottles).

Many Flint residents have been buying bottled water throughout this ongoing crisis, but those stuck in the county jail did not have that option.

After Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency, the jail began distributing bottles of water. Only five days later, however, the facility switched back to the city supply after Sheriff Robert Pickell claimed that testing showed the water was safe. When his decision was questioned, the jail reverted to using bottled water on January 23, 2016.

Jody Cramer was one of the prisoners tasked with distributing the bottles. Following his release, he explained that prisoners were receiving only two 12-ounce bottles twice a day, including pregnant women held at the jail. That is far below the suggested daily amount of water that the Institute of Medicine recommends for men and women, which is 100 and 73 ounces of water per day, respectively.

“Many inmates made complaints, due to the fact that the deputies would not drink from the faucets,” Cramer said, noting that employees at the jail “all carried bottled water.”

This news about how prisoners at the Genesee County Jail were treated implicates larger concerns, including concerns about Flint’s juvenile justice system. Mayor Weaver pointed out the severe consequences of lead poisoning, saying, “damage to children is irreversible and can cause effects to a child’s IQ, which will result in learning disabilities ... and an increase in the juvenile justice system.”

The Genesee County Sheriff’s Office is far from the only entity to ignore prisoners during ecological crises. The Human Rights Defense Center’s Prison Ecology Project has documented dozens of problem facilities across the nation, including state and federal prisons, where prisoners face disproportionate environmental health impacts such as water and air pollution from toxic industrial activities.

Some examples include arsenic in rural prison water supplies across the southwest; coal mining-related contamination across the region of Appalachia, such as the active coal ash dump surrounding a prison in Pennsylvania; detention facilities built on or near landfills and Superfund sites; and a 2014 catastrophic chemical spill in West Virginia where prisoners were neglected during a declared state of emergency and forced to drink contaminated water. [See: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.24; Oct. 2015, p.30].

In some of these cases, prisoners who publicly complained about such problems were subjected to retaliatory discipline by prison and jail staff. Yet given the typical indifference of public officials, the general public and the mainstream media, if prisoners do not expose these issues, who will? And who will be held accountable in Flint for failing to ensure that jailed residents were afforded access to sufficient non-contaminated water?

Sources: Associated Press, Think Progress, Democracy Now!

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