My Continued Efforts To Expose And Resist The Contaminated Water Problem In Virginia Prisons
By Uhuru B. Rowe
December 4, 2017
“WE WANT the Abolition of any VADOc policy, practice, or procedure which violates the human/constitutional rights of incarcerated people and endangers/hinders their…physical health…including but not limited to…VADOc inhumane practice of not providing incarcerated people with access to clean drinking water. The water in Virginia prisons is discolored, foul-tasting, and foul-smelling as a result of being contaminated with high levels of rust, lead, and other contaminants. Whether free or incarcerated, having access to safe and clean drinking water is a fundamental Human Right!” — Demand #16(J) of the Free Virginia Movement
After the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and elsewhere around the country where — either because of neglect, indifference, or corruption of government officials — people have become sick and have even died from consuming contaminated drinking water, we all should be concerned about our drinking water, including incarcerated people. Because incarcerated people are isolated away from the public behind concrete walls, we are the most vulnerable to abuse and neglect and corruption by prison officials. So, as an incarcerated person, I will like to give you a historical view of my quest to expose what I, and many other incarcerated people, believe to be a contaminated water issue here in the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC), its affect on our health, and our attempts to resolve it within a grievance system that’s designed to cover-up unjust and inhumane prison conditions in a cloud of secrecy.
Below is the timeline of when I first became ill after consuming what I believe was contaminated water on June 27, 2016, when I was housed at the Buckingham Correctional Center, and again on September 5, 2017, here at Sussex II State Prison.
Buckingham Correctional Center (BKCC):
On June 27, 2016, from 9:45 AM until 9:00 PM, the water flowing through the pipes and into our cells at the BKCC turned a dark-brown color and had a foul taste and smell. Having no choice but to drink this water to avoid dehydration, I developed nausea and cramps after drinking two cups. I then submitted an Informal Complaint (Tracking # BKCC-16-INF-01568), dated 6/29/16, detailing this incident. The Grievance Coordinator at BKCC, S. Meinhard, responded at the bottom section of this Informal Complaint stating, “I spoke with Mr. Johnson/B&G [Building & Grounds] today and he explained that when the County or this facility exercises the fire hydrants we do experience settlement in the lines – but the water is safe to drink.” Meinhard did not address my illness.
Unsatisfied with this response, I filed a Level 1 Regular Grievance (Grievance # BKCC-16-REG-00215), dated 7/18/16, essentially detailing the same matters as in the Informal Complaint, but included the following recommendations: whenever the water turns brown and becomes foul smelling/tasting, an advisory must be issued advising the inmate population as to why the water is brown and foul smelling/tasting; whether or not it is safe to drink; and distribute bottled water to the inmate population during period when the water is discolored and foul smelling/tasting so that we can have access to clean and safe drinking water during this moment of uncertainty.
In Warden Rodney Younce’s Level 1 Grievance Response to my Regular Grievance, dated 8/10/16, Younce stated, ” An investigation into this matter indicates that Mrs. Meinhard and the Plumber Mr. Johnson contacted Bruce Smith, the Buckingham Water Plant Manager on 8/9/2016 and he relayed that when exercising the fire hydrants, iron and manganese is present in the water that gives it the discolor which is a light brown and there is no harm to drinking or showering in it…After thoroughly reviewing the information in response to your complaint and the information obtained from Buckingham County, your grievance is unfounded. It has been determined that the water is safe to drink on the few occasions that the county exercises the hydrants.” Again, my illness was not addressed. The poor water quality at BKCC, as is in every Virginia prison, is a consistent, ongoing problem, and does not happen on just a “few occasions” as Younce described it in his effort to minimize this problem.
Unsatisfied with the Warden Younce’s response to my Level 1 Regular Grievance, I initiated the final step in the Grievance process by filing a Level II Appeal, dated 8/15/16, with the Central Regional Administrator, Wendy S. Hobbs. In this appeal, I went into detail about how high levels of lead, iron, rust, and manganese in the water can cause severe side effects if consumed on a regular basis. I also argued against S. Meinhard and Rodney Younce’s claim that the water is safe to drink because some of us become sick after drinking this water; because none of the prison employees drink the water; and because it is a common practice for prison employees to bring in their own bottled water with them when they come to work.
In her 8/19/16 Response to my Level II Appeal, Charlene Davis, responding on behalf of Regional Administrator Wendy S. Hobbs, advised me that “Your grievance appeal has been reviewed along with the response from the Level I respondent and your original complaint… Based on the information provided, I am upholding the decision of the Level I respondent, which has determined that your grievance is unfounded. I find no violation of policy.” Again, my illness was not addressed.