Back in October, the Genesee County Health Department declared a public health emergency, telling the residents of Flint, Michigan to stop drinking the city’s tap water due to dangerously high levels of lead. Two months later, the mayor of Flint declared a state of emergency, saying the city’s pipes were still leaching lead. The National Guard ramped up the distribution of bottled water to residents in January, one year after state officials received bottles.
But while Flint residents scrambled to get bottled water and filters, one group was kept in the dark about the risks posed by the tap water: inmates doing time in Genesee County Jail. According to an exclusive report from Democracy Now!, the facility lied to inmates about the water quality and forced them to drink and bathe in the water. Inmates, including pregnant women, also ate food cooked with the tainted water.
When the jail finally started passing out the water bottles on January 23, Jody Cramer was one of the inmates charged with distributing them. After his release this week, Cramer told Democracy Now! that men and women received just two 12-ounce bottles of water, two times a day.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that men and women drink 100 and 73 ounces of water, respectively, every single day.
“Prior to this, they had already started handing out bottles of water, when this first broke in October. And then they stopped, saying that their water was good,” Cramer said. “We’ve been told that there’s nothing wrong with washing your body or hands with this water.”
While inmates consumed and touched the water, jail staff avoided it altogether.
“Many inmates made complaints, due to the fact that the deputies would not drink from the faucets. They all carried bottled water,” Cramer said. When he alerted his mother about what was happening, she visited the facility to find answers. A deputy told her that the jail had a filtration process in place.
Cramer also told Democracy Now! that multiple inmates landed behind bars because they were tricked by deputies who came to their homes under the guise of passing out water filtration systems. When people opened the door, the deputies would ask them to confirm their names and serve warrants to the people on the spot.
“Here’s your water filtration system. By the way, you have a warrant for your arrest,” Cramer said.
News of the inmates’ treatment comes amid growing concerns about the future of Flint’s juvenile justice system. Mayor Karen Weaver pointed out the severe implications 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.” In a city with heavily-policed schools and a robust school-to-prison pipeline, children with behavioral disorders and mental retardation caused by lead poisoning could face harsh discipline in the future. And trauma from the crisis could manifest in delinquent behavior that lands them in the system.
Flint isn’t the first city to ignore its inmates. After a catastrophic chemical spill in West Virginia in 2014, prisoners in Charleston were forgotten during the state of emergency issued by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Forced to drink contaminated water — including water from the toilet — inmates had multiple health problems: headaches, chest pains, respiratory problems, and trouble with eyesight. But people who reported their ailments were thrown into solitary confinement.