Inmate Spends Ten Days in solitary Confinement to Protest Lack of Clean Water

Wayland Coleman, an inmate at MCI-Norfolk — a prison that has been under scrutiny for inaction regarding its dirty and potentially harmful water — spent ten days in solitary confinement late March for attempting to distribute bottled water he had purchased to fellow prisoners. Coleman, who has been working alongside prisoner advocates to help quell Norfolk’s water crisis, went on a hunger and water strike for the duration of his time in solitary to protest the conditions within the prison.

Deeper Than Water — a coalition made up of several groups involved in prison reform and abolition, including the Young Abolitionists, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Black Lives Matter Boston and Black and Pink Boston — had raised funds for Coleman so that he could purchase multiple cases of bottled water at the prison’s canteen. Coleman  then distributed the legally purchased water to other prisoners at Norfolk, who have been drinking foul-smelling, brown water for decades. On March 21, the water bottles were seized without reimbursement after an officer discovered 14 of the purchased cases in Coleman’s cell (together they cost about $240). Deeper Than Water, which keeps in contact with Coleman on a regular basis, said that he was at the canteen when he was then violently restrained and put into solitary confinement.

“That morning, he was called to canteen before the other prisoners and told that he could not pick up [any more of] the water he bought,” a member of Deeper Than Water claims. “Guards used excessive force to take Wayland to solitary, including jumping on him, using a chokehold, ignoring Wayland’s cry that he couldn’t breathe, and placing ankle cuffs on so tightly that a lawyer was able to see scar marks around his ankles a week and half later.”

A disciplinary report was filed less than an hour after the officer had discovered the cases of water in Coleman’s cell, and was signed off by supervisors by 10 p.m. that night. It noted that Coleman’s offense was the possession of contraband “not authorized for retention by inmates.”

“In general, we find it appalling that Wayland is being punished for trying to obtain clean water in a prison that has done nothing to remedy a long-standing known problem of toxic water,” said Christine Mitchell, a member of Deeper Than Water. “The fact is that the state put a man in solitary confinement for having clean drinking water inside a prison where the water runs black.”

While MCI-Norfolk declined to comment on any of these incidents, the Department of Corrections stated that a prisoner would “never have been put [in solitary] merely for hoarding water.”

In response to the actions taken by the prison, Deeper Than Water organized a call-in campaign to demand Coleman’s release from solitary and for swift action to be taken regarding Norfolk’s ongoing water issue. Amidst this public pressure, the coalition says that the prison handed Coleman a second disciplinary report retroactively telling a much different story of what happened on March 21. Nowhere on the second report are the confiscated water cases mentioned; instead, it cited a different offense as the reason Coleman was in solitary confinement. While the officers’ signatures on the report are dated as being signed on March 21 — earlier than the times noted on the first disciplinary report — the timestamp on the bottom of the document reveals that it was not completed until the afternoon of March 27, six days later.

“Relying on the belief that the DOC would not have to answer to anyone outside of Wayland and his counsel, [the first report] gives an honest account of why Wayland was initially put in segregation,” Deeper Than Water said in a released statement. “Under public scrutiny, the system did what the system always does: it re-wrote the narrative to justify the repressive actions it had already taken.”

This is not the first time Wayland Coleman was placed in solitary confinement at MCI-Norfolk. Last year, he was put in solitary for a month after he mailed a report by the Norfolk Inmate Council — of which he was co-chairman at the time — to the Boston Globe, detailing the prison’s deteriorated water conditions.  In June 2017, the Globe published an article detailing the water conditions; it stated that nearly half of the water samples taken at MCI-Norfolk since 2011 have shown manganese levels exceeding 300 ppb. According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, levels that high have been shown to cause neurological damage if consumed regularly for long periods of time. Roughly half the prisoners at MCI-Norfolk are serving life sentences, more than any other state prison.

Despite years of inaction from prison officials and the multiple punishments he has received related to this water crisis, Wayland Coleman says he is still pushing against what he claims are denials of basic human rights. “We are still tasked with the objective of fighting issues of inhumanity related to the incarcerated.”

Zach Mobrice is an intern at Spare Change News. A native of Rhode Island, Zach studies journalism at Roger Williams University.

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