“Drinking Chemical Out Of A Tank”

A detailed investigation paints a dire picture of the conditions in a Charleston, West Virginia jail after the chemical spill.

5 Terrible Things That Happened In A Charleston Jail During The West Virginia Chemical Spill

It’s been over four months since West Virginia was thrown into a state of emergency after roughly 10,000 gallons of coal chemicals leaked in the water supply and left 300,000 people without potable water. The state took immediate action for many of its residents, shutting down schools and calling the National Guard to help distribute water. But in a detailed investigation released today, Think Progress reports on one group that didn’t receive the proper treatment: the 429 prisoners locked in Charleston’s overcrowded jail,entirely dependent on the state to provide them clean water.

The investigation, based on interviews with multiple current and former inmates, their family members and internal documents obtained by Think Progress, paints a dire picture. We’ve pulled out five of the most disconcerting pieces of information. Head over to the blog to read the entire story.

1. Jail officials initially said they provided inmates with a “plentiful supply of water,” then acknowledged later that was untrue. The only article prior to the Think Progress investigation included jail officials claiming they gave inmates eight 8-oz bottles of water per day. When confronted with jail documents instructing guards to give inmates four bottles per day, and inmate allegations that they sometimes received just two, officials openly said that “some of the information provided to the paper was in fact untrue.” The Institute of Medicine recommends men over 19 years old drink at least 12 8-oz bottles of water per day:

2. Inmates spoke of choosing between chemical-laced tap water or severe dehydration. One inmate, Eric Ayers, initially opted for the latter option. “That lasted about a day,” he said. “I was just extremely exhausted. I got headaches, felt like I couldn’t do anything. My urine was dark yellow, almost orange.” Some started selling bottles of water for $1.60 a piece, while another “saw a guy make coffee out of toilet water.”

3. Jail officials also exaggerated the extent of the flushing process for cleaning out the taps. Prior to the Think Progress investigation, the public thought that the jail went through a “very extensive” flushing process that lasted two to three days–similar to other public facilities. Jail logs show, however, that flushing occurred in a single day, not three. Officials said they followed formal protocol and ran taps for 20 minutes, but here is how one inmate described it: “After two to three minutes they said good to go you can drink the water. It tasted real strong. Just like drinking that chemical out of a tank.”

4. Inmates may have been placed in solitary confinement for getting sick from drinking the polluted water. From the Think Progress report: “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.”

5. The jail where this all took place has been called “the worst in the state” when it comes to overcrowding. South Central Regional Jail houses 476 inmates, which is over 50 percent above the jail’s intended capacity (currently, sixteen inmates are sleeping on mats on the floor). Perhaps as a consequence of this, the jail has also struggled to keep corrections officers on staff; one former administrator acknowledged that “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.

BOTTOM LINE: Thanks to breakthrough investigative reporting, the ramifications of the West Virginia chemical spill are still being discovered. When society’s more basic resources — like running water — disappear, it hits the most vulnerable among us the hardest. And when those people are already in a situation that is under-resourced, the negative impacts are magnified.

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Advocacy Team