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Water at Massachusetts Prison Under Scrutiny from Prisoners, Advocates, Public Agencies

by Panagioti Tsolkas

When Wayland Coleman, a prisoner at MCI-Norfolk in Massachusetts, stepped out of the shower last year he noticed something strange. It was as if the towel he used to dry himself was, in his words, “used to wipe dirt off the floor.”

“I don’t know exactly what is in this water, but I do know that it is in my hair, eyes, nose, and skin,” Coleman wrote in a letter to the Boston Globe. “I ingest it, and with each swallow, I fear for my long-term health.”

He wasn’t alone. In December 2016, the Norfolk Inmate Council, composed of prisoners tasked with representing the facility’s incarcerated population, conducted a survey on health-related problems. They presented a report to the administration indicating that almost two-thirds of the prisoners surveyed said they suffered from rashes and other skin ailments. Around half noted intestinal issues.

The council’s report also cited problems with water sampling results at the prison, which were collected from the source rather than the tap, possibly missing major dangers including lead and other sediment from corroded pipes. The water, they said, was not only dark in color but also clogs filters in the communal sinks with sediment.

Yet despite the inadequate sampling method for testing water quality, the Globe’s review of state records found 43 percent of all samples collected at MCI-Norfolk since 2011 indicated dangerously elevated levels of manganese in the water. That mineral, though considered “naturally occurring,” can cause neurological disorders which resemble Parkinson’s disease when consumed in high levels over prolonged periods.

This concerned Coleman, who was among the roughly 750 lifers at the prison who experience long-term exposure to the water.

The Norfolk Inmate Council also expressed anger in its report because dogs at the facility, which are trained by prisoners to become service animals for people with disabilities, were given bottled water. Meanwhile, few prisoners could afford to purchase bottled water. At $0.65 for a 16-ounce bottle, that cost equals one-third of the average prisoner’s daily wage.

“Dogs are provided bottled water, but the human inmates are not,” the council’s report stated. “This creates ... a strong distrust of the [prison] administrators’ stance on any and all water/health related issues.”

In defense of the prison administration, Peter Lorenz, a spokesman for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said, “More than half the water samples are within compliance.”

He did not address the samples that were not in compliance, or if that rationale would be acceptable for water quality at, say, public schools.

Birgit Claus Henn, a Boston University epidemiologist, has spent years studying the impact of manganese. According to her research, the water system should have been repaired if even 10 percent of samples showed elevated levels of the mineral. She said recent studies show manganese can contribute to poor academic performance, diminished verbal function and other cognitive problems.

“Given that these individuals are chronically exposed, and they aren’t given a choice and can’t seek an alternate source for their water, I would be concerned that this population isn’t adequately protected,” Claus Henn concluded.

Marc Nascarella, director of the environmental toxicology program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, agreed. “Is it a concern that individuals who are incarcerated don’t have access to clean, fresh water? Yes.”

Despite the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) ordering the DOC to install a new water system, prison officials continued to make excuses for not doing so. Christopher Fallon, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, wrote in an e-mail that the new water treatment system was still in the works but all the bids had exceeded the department’s budget, leading to a series of contract delays. The $5 million system was supposed to go online in May 2018, and DEP has threatened to fine the DOC due to the delays.

In February 2017, Coleman was placed in solitary confinement for a month after he mailed the council’s report to the Globe. Soon after, he was stripped of his position on the council.

Senior prison administrators at MCI-Norfolk declined to answer questions about that development. But neither the struggle nor the repression ended there.

Over the following year, Coleman worked to establish more support on the outside and developed a plan to circulate water bottles among fellow prisoners. Around the same time, a coalition of prisoners’ rights advocates calling itself Deeper Than Water formed to assist the effort and raise awareness about the water situation at MCI-Norfolk.

Christine Mitchell, a Harvard doctoral student in public health and member of Deeper Than Water, said the group saw no other option, stating, “We know [DOC has] the money and the resources to provide clean water, and they haven’t done it.”

Earlier this year, Deeper Than Water began raising money to help prisoners purchase cases of bottled water, and opted to let them manage the distribution of the water. Naturally, Coleman stepped up.

But by mid-March 2018 he was back in solitary for his efforts. In response to inquiries about the reason for Coleman’s punishment, Fallon stated advocates should have worked with prison officials, not prisoners, to provide bottled water. But Mitchell and other members of Deeper Than Water said they couldn’t trust the same prison administrators who had been ignoring the water problems at MCI-Norfolk for years to distribute the bottled water.

Deeper Than Water members said they were told Coleman was threatened by a captain that if he continued to purchase cases of bottled water there would be repercussions. The next day, on his way to retrieve six more cases, a guard put him in a choke hold and, with the help of a dozen other guards, hauled him off to a solitary confinement cell.

Coleman proceeded to go on a food and water strike until he was given filtered or bottled water. Two full days passed without food or water. A guard brought him water from the guards’ water cooler on the third day, so he resumed eating. While he was in solitary, all of the other prisoners received filtered water, too.

Released from segregation on March 30, 2018, Coleman ended up with three disciplinary charges. But he also succeeded in getting the attention of the new superintendent at the facility as a result of his actions and those of the Deeper Than Water coalition, which pushed for call-ins to the prison and co-hosted a demonstration along with one of Coleman’s family members.

The water quality problems at MCI-Norfolk remain ongoing. 

Sources: Boston Globe, Democracy Now!,, WBUR News


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