When roughly 10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked into a West Virginia watershed this January, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency. Officials shut down schools, deployed the National Guard, and rallied volunteers to bring water and support to the 300,000 people without potable water.
But in the state’s emergency response, there was one group that many forgot: the 429 prisoners locked in Charleston’s overcrowded jail, who were entirely dependent on the state to provide them clean water.
The only article that looked at the spill’s impact on inmates was a small, glowing report published two months later in the Charleston Daily Mail. Jail officials trumpeted their success at “protecting” inmates by providing a “plentiful supply of bottled water.”
Joe DeLong, executive director of the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority, told the paper inmates were given eight bottles of water a day and that they had “essentially no access to the contaminated water.” Before the jail returned to using tap water on January 18, DeLong said the jail went through a “very extensive” flushing process that lasted two to three days. They said they weren’t aware of any inmates reporting health problems related to chemical exposure.
In many ways, the jail seemed to be one of the safest places in Charleston after the spill. Except that much of it wasn’t true.