Inmates suing over water quality at Flint jail

FLINT, MI – Two jail inmates are asking a federal judge to step in to ensure that they and others who are locked up receive clean drinking water while at the Genesee County Jail.

Douglas Long and Renee Hodges filed a lawsuit Tuesday, March 8, in Detroit U.S. District Court asking a federal judge to force Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell to “provide safe and clean water to all those confined presently and in the future at the jail.”

Attorney Daniel Manville, director of the Michigan State University Civil Rights Clinic, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the pair. The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of more than 500 inmates who have been incarcerated at the jail since the onset of the water crisis.

“All we want is a guarantee from the sheriff’s department that the inmates continue to get bottled water,” Manville said.

The lawsuit is only seeking an injunction and not monetary damages, Manville said.

The county has not filed a response to the lawsuit but Pickell said he is already taken steps to make sure inmates are drinking clean water.

Manville alleges inmates at the jail received only nine days’ worth of bottled water in late 2015, despite a public health emergency being declared by the county on Oct. 1.

The jail then stopped providing inmates with bottled water, forcing them to drink, shower and eat food prepared with Flint city water, the lawsuit claims.

The same day that the sheriff sounded the all clear on the water quality at the jail, other county officials were expressing concerns that a sink at the jail was still testing positive for elevated lead levels, according to emails obtained by The Flint Journal through the Freedom of Information Act.

Pickell says he doesn’t trust any of the test results and will continue to give inmates bottled water and dry food until he knows the facility’s water is safe.

All of the tests at the jail came back negative except for a medical sink that Pickell said was not used for drinking.

The all-clear was given despite concerns by some county officials.

“I don’t think we can issue an all clear until we can determine what the issue is with this sink,” county health officer Mark Valacak told Genesee County Buildings and Grounds Director Ray Zanke, in an Oct. 8 email obtained by The Flint Journal through the Freedom of Information Act.

Later that day, Zanke responded, saying contaminants were found in the sink’s aerator, which was removed and a new sample was taken.

That sample came back negative, and the fixture was replaced.

Pickell, however, said he gave the all-clear because the rest of the fixtures had tested negative and the sink in question was not used for drinking. But, when a citywide state of emergency was declared for the water crisis in January, Pickell said he put inmates back on bottled water until the he’s convinced the water is safe.

“I want to do everything I can humanly possible to protect the inmates from any toxins,” Pickell said.

Currently, inmates are also receiving dry food, which does not require the use of water for preparation. Pickell said the dry food cost the taxpayers an additional $16,000 in January and February.

The jail is currently using donations for its bottled water supply, Pickell said.

But, it’s those donations that worry Manville. He said he was concerned the sheriff would revert back to tap water once the donations run dry. That’s why he is asking the judge to step in and order the sheriff use bottled water until a third party can confirm the city’s water is safe.

“If there isn’t something wrong with the water why are you doing anything,” Manville asked.

The city is in the national spotlight after elevated blood lead levels were discovered in some Flint children after the city changed its water source from Lake Huron water purchased from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April 2014, a decision made while the city was being run by a state-appointed emergency manager pending the city’s joining the Karegnondi Water Authority.

State regulators never required that the river water be treated to make it less corrosive, causing lead from plumbing and pipes to leach into the water supply.

Even though the city reconnected to the Detroit water system in October, local and state officials have warned pregnant women and young children against drinking the water unless it has been tested because lead levels continue to exceed what can be handled by a filter.

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