On May 19th, 2018, people from over a dozen organizations converged on the grounds of MCI-Norfolk, where Malcolm X was incarcerated between 1946-1952. May 19th would have been Malcolm X’s 93rd birthday. MCI-Norfolk is the largest prison in Massachusetts, where over 1,500 human beings are held against their will.
MCI-Norfolk is a medium security prison which stands next to the now defunct Bay State Correctional Center. Between the two lies a sea of concertina wire, fences and concrete walls. There are three facilities in this short two-mile expanse: MCI-Norfolk, MCI-Cedar Junction (formerly known as MCI-Walpole), and Pondville Correctional Center. Over 2,000 people are held on this small stretch of land.
Since the late 1980’s, MCI-Norfolk and the land that it sits on has been the center of controversy, including lawsuits brought by the towns of Walpole and Norfolk against the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. At the time, the Army had approved construction of a wastewater treatment plant that would process wastewater from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Boston Harbor cleanup efforts and provide a landfill for residual waste. This landfill was constructed at MCI-Walpole (now Cedar Junction), which sits south of Norfolk, and Pondville.
In the early 1990’s, prisoners at MCI Norfolk began to report that their drinking water began to smell strongly of chlorine. Water used by prisoners is locally sourced from wells operated by the Department of Correction. Prisoners have since likened the experience to trying to drink from a swimming pool; at times the potency of the smell has been enough to make people recoil from glasses of it and activated gag reflexes. Several prisoners reported that their hair started to change colors in the light to shades of green.In the interceding decades between then and now, the water at these prisons has turned from heavily chlorinated to sulfurous. Over time the color of the water has changed from clear, to beige, to brown and eventually black. This water is used by prisoners for drinking, washing, preparation of food and all sanitary functions.
The DOC has a long history of failing to comply with laws governing safe drinking water. In 2012, the state Department of Environmental Protection (MA DEP) issued an Administrative Consent Order, in which it found that two of the three water supply sources for the DOC facilities exceeded the secondary maximum contaminant level for iron and manganese, which prevented the delivery of “safe, fit, pure drinking water.” The DEP also found that the DOC did not “currently have any treatment to remove the high levels of iron and manganese from its sources.” The DEP ordered the DOC to activate a filtration system capable of handling iron and manganese by November 1, 2015. Despite the immediate need, the DOC has yet to fully comply with this order. Organizers have tracked the flow of millions of dollars in the past year towards construction of the filtration system, however prisoners report that the water remains worse than it ever has been. Recently, amidst the first hot days of late Spring, the water had to be completely shut off. Prisoners were told that the water coming out of the pipes was not potable and given gallon jugs of water.
In 2015, prisoners inside MCI-Norfolk, fearful of the dangers the water posed to their health and safety, began to collect data from their fellow prisoners. The data was compiled into a Water and Health report that was released in 2016. Since then, prisoners have continued to update the report. The 2016 report, which contained a list of ailments ranging from gastric cancers to skin lesions, was supplied to David Abel of The Boston Globe. In June of 2017, Abel published an exposé documenting the ongoing failure of the DOC to provide prisoners with safe, clean water. In this article, Abel chronicled reports from prisoners that the DOC had instructed guards at the facility not to drink the water from the tap and had instead supplied guards with bottled water. NEADS dogs, service animals at the facility, were also provided with bottled water as were dogs from the K-9 unit.
In coordination with members inside, the #DeeperThanWater coalition was formed in June of 2017 to support the efforts of prisoners at MCI-Norfolk. The outside membership is comprised of a group of local organizations ranging from prison abolition organizations to socialist groups, public health researchers, and environmental justice activists. Much of the catalyst for this work came from two primary sources: ongoing contacts with loved ones inside who spearheaded the organizing efforts that led to the court order and the exposé in the Globe, and the recent release of Timothy J. Muise, a powerful organizer who for decades pushed against the injustices of the DOC from inside the prison walls. Muise’s work can be seen on Solitary Watch and Between the Bars.
In response to ongoing organizing around the water, the state has ramped up efforts to build the filtration system required by the terms of the consent order with the DEP. Despite the requirement to do so, the state sat on their hands until 2016, when they put a contract out to bid. Actual construction didn’t start until after public pressure began. To date, prisoners inside have decreasingly safe water. In response to statements by state agencies that the problem was being tended to, activists have re-analyzed the EPA’s data so far collected on the water supply. When isolated by well, all but one (which remains fairly stable) shows an upward trend of manganese contamination, now severely exceeding action levels.