Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A video investigation by VICE leaves unanswered questions about how the city’s incarcerated population has fared throughout the lead crisis.
In an upcoming episode of VICE for HBO, news correspondent Ahmed Shihab-Eldin reports from Flint, Michigan, where residents are still learning how to live with a water supply contaminated with toxic lead—the result of decisions made by state-appointed city managers.
In the 15-minute report, Shihab-Eldin features one questionable segment with Robert Pickell, the Genesee County Sheriff who presides over a jail in downtown Flint that—depending on who’s asked—was either spared or uniquely victimized by the poisoned water. In the VICE report, Pickell is portrayed heroically for providing bottled water to the inmates, and for deploying the inmates to Flint’s streets to distribute bottled water to residents.
“I don’t trust the government’s testing,” Pickell tells Shihab-Eldin. “In the jail, I’m giving them bottled water. The inmates have [it] better than the people who are out here! Isn’t there something wrong with that?”
There isn’t any jail policy that says incarcerated people should have worse water quality than those not in jail, so it’s not entirely clear what “wrong” the sheriff is illuminating. Should there have been a reversal of misfortune, with inmates suffering with poisoned water instead of the public?
Whatever point Pickell is making, it’s not even clear that his details are totally correct. Pickell did reportedly issue bottled water to those in jail. However, according to a Democracy Now report in February, the inmates were also told to go back to drinking tap water at certain points, even after the lead disaster had fully blown open. Former inmate Jody Cramer told Democracy Now right after he was released from a two-month stint in the Genesee County jail:
In jail, we were drinking from the taps. Our food was being made from the taps. 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. Many inmates made complaints due to the fact that the deputies would not drink from the faucets—they all carried bottled water. And on that same token, we were consistently told that the water in the jail was good. And also, when I had made phone calls home, I explained the situation to my family members, and from what we were told, the water in the jail was good. ...
[W]ater was starting to be distributed on the 23rd of January. But the food they still served that day was already made already with the water. So, we kind of were like, "All right. Well, we’re distributing water, but what about this food that we’ve been eating all day—or all month or prior to this?"
Pickell admitted to a local newscast that he reverted the inmates back to tap water after handing out bottled water to them in October, after the lead was discovered. The sheriff said that he only switched back to tap water based on assurances that the water was safe, and that he provided dry food for the inmates during that time period.
It’s worth watching this clip in its entirety for the full context (the VICE episode airs this Friday on HBO). The Flint water crisis has ushered in no shortage of investigations, but there are still many unanswered questions. For one, how could anyone think that the tap water was suddenly safe enough to offer inmates again after it became clear that the entire city’s supply was critically compromised? These are the kinds of issues that are often overlooked when dealing with the incarcerated.