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Prisoners in Flint, Michigan Lied to About Water Crisis; Lawsuit Settles

by David M. Reutter

As the lead-tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan developed in 2015 and 2016, detainees held at the Genesee County Jail (GCJ) were told the water they drank, cooked with and bathed in was safe. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.22]. That lie was the subject of a class-action federal lawsuit that resulted in a quick settlement.

In October 2015, the Genesee County Health Department declared a public health emergency, telling residents that Flint’s water had dangerously high levels of lead. The mayor declared a state of emergency two months later, saying the city’s pipes were still leaking lead.

While residents avoided tap water, between October and December 2015 the prisoners at GCJ received only nine days of bottled water. Once the bottled water was discontinued, they “were required to drink, to bathe in, and consume food prepared with tap water from the City of Flint,” the class-action complaint stated.

GCJ again began to distribute bottled water on January 23, 2016, but prisoners were only given two 12-ounce bottles twice a day.

“Prior to this, they had already started handing out bottles of water when this first broke out in October, and they stopped, saying that their water was good,” said former GCJ detainee Jody Cramer. “We’ve been told that there’s nothing wrong with washing your body or hands with this water.”

Staff at GCJ, meanwhile, avoided the tap water.

“Many inmates made complaints, due to the fact that deputies would not drink from the faucets. They all carried bottled water,” said Cramer. He alerted his mother, and when she visited him a deputy told her the jail had a filtration process in place.

Sheriff Robert J. Pickell claimed the tap water was shut off at GCJ in January 2016, but “this is likely not accurate,” the lawsuit stated. “The tap water continued to be used for showers and in sinks.”

The class-action suit was filed by Daniel E. Manville, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Michigan State University (and PLN’s former general counsel), and by law students Lauren Dyer, Dominque Augustus and Ryan Fowler.

The complaint alleged the bottled water provided to GCJ had been donated and no budget was in place to continue providing uncontaminated water once the donations ended. As a result, GCJ detainees risked “severe physical injuries due to their exposure to the toxic water.”

The lawsuit was filed in federal court on March 8, 2016 and a settlement was reached around three months later with a consent decree. Pursuant to the settlement, the jail agreed to provide prisoners with up to 128 ounces of bottled water per day. The agreement was for one year and set testing standards and acceptable lead levels before tap water could again be used at GCJ.

In exchange for jail officials entering into the consent decree, the prisoners’ attorneys waived their fees and costs in the case. See: Long v. Pickell, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:16-cv-10842-AC-SDD. 

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