There’s recently been an ongoing problem at the Eastern Regional Jail.
One that’s drawn criticism from inmates and their family members, as corrective work continued.
Water has been periodically shut off at the facility since last month due to a malfunctioning sewage grinder, and that problem continued late this week.
A state spokesman confirmed there have been “periodic outages because of recurring issues with this piece of equipment” since late December.
Consequently, a motor has been installed in the sewage grinder.
Located in Martinsburg, the facility serves the Eastern Panhandle and had 460 inmates on Jan. 8.
State records show the water has been off for a combined total of approximately 70 hours during three separate incidents.
That figure doesn’t include Thursday’s shut off which ended at 5 p.m., after a malfunction traced to multiple washcloths flushed by inmates
Its duration is not known since no official information was provided on when it began.
Inmates, however, have been keeping close track since the situation began.
They say the lack of water been more than an inconvenience.
There are health concerns since it means toilets can’t be flushed for hours on end.
And that meant there was no way to get rid of the human waste in them.
The bottled water that’s been given to them was inadequate water to meet personal hygiene needs.
In some cases, the expiration date on the water’s label was 2015, one inmate said.
“I don’t know what that really means or if water can be bad. But why would the state be giving us that? Aren’t they ready to have this kind of problem? It sure doesn’t look like it,” the inmate said.
“And how much can you really do with that much water? It has been hard trying to ration it to have enough to brush my teeth and do everything else I need to do. This just isn’t right.”
Another inmate also complained about the situation.
“It really has been bad here without water. If I had known how bad it could be like this in a jail, maybe I would have changed a long time ago. This is no way to treat people,” the inmate said.
“There has been times when the dirty water would shoot out of it when someone would try to flush a toilet. They keep shutting it off without really saying what’s happening, and it isn’t easy when things are this way.
You might try to wait to go to the toilet but just can’t, and it is there until they turn the water back on six or seven hours later. So you put a towel over it, while that stuff is just sitting in there.”
Meal quality has also suffered due to the lack of water, an inmate said, adding, “It was especially bad when they tried to make pasta without having enough water to cook it. It was real nasty food, and the whole pod refused it. So we didn’t have any dinner that night.”
State corrections spokesman Lawrence Messina said inmate needs have been served while remedial actions were under way to solve the problem.
Water shutoffs began in late December and continued Thursday, said Messina, communications director for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
“Just like you have boiled-water advisories and such for homes and businesses, we sometimes have issues in our facilities.
During this same time period I think we have also had to turn the water off at either Western or South Central. If there is a water main break in the community, the water goes off.
There are all kinds of different reasons. It’s sad when it happens, but it does.
At the Eastern Regional Jail there has been a problem with a piece of equipment that basically breaks down waste before it goes into the local sewer system,” he said in a telephone interview.
Water must be turned off while this repair is being made.
“But all of our facilities stockpile bottled water, and have access to bulk water if the need arises. So when they turned off the water to fix the machine, they just issued bottled water.”
After being contacted, Messina (who sees reports and keeps his own notes) also requested a “more detailed chronology” of the facility’s problem.
Here’s what it showed:
State records show the first shut off began Dec. 27, 2017, at 3:45 p.m., and ended the next day at 10:55 a.m. That’s roughly 19 hours.
It happened again on Jan. 7 beginning at 1:30 p.m., and ended the next day at 3:30 p.m. That’s 26 hours.
At that time, 96 ounces of water was provided to each inmate in a 24-hour period, in addition to the juice served with meals and the milk with breakfast.
A third shut off occurred on Jan. 9 beginning at 2:10 p.m., and ended the next day at 1:21 p.m. That’s about 23.5 hours.
At that time 64 ounces of water was provided to each inmate in addition to juice and milk served during meals.
Thursday’s incident was also a grinder malfunction, and at that time maintenance workers found a towel and multiple wash clothes flushed by inmates.
Those have been dislodged from the grinder. Water was restored at 5 p.m., he said.
“ERJ ultimately had to replace the motor for the sewage grinder. It cannot pinpoint the cause of each malfunction, but it is absolutely true that inmates constantly flush all manners of objects and that taxes/compromises the grinder.”
Messina disagreed with inmate claims that inadequate water was available for their needs. Or that health concerns were ignored.
Officials learned “important lessons after the 2014 water crisis here in the Kanawha Valley, and so we have a protocol for distributing adequate amounts of water for personal use and during meals.”
During the outages, water was “restored in the housing units for brief periods” during each one allowing for personal hygiene, including commode flushing, hand washing and showers, he said.
Each inmate was issued two, 16-ounce bottles of water with meals and during interim periods of the outages.
Family members say they haven’t been happy with their loved ones treatment, or the lack of specifics available from officials.
A woman said many of the details provided by her adult child indicated the inmates were facing eight to 10 hours without water at a time.
That made showering or using the toilet nearly impossible.
Another mother wanted details, but couldn’t get them, she said.
“When I called to see what was going on, they just kept saying they were working on the problem. But wouldn’t tell me anything else, and that wasn’t right.
Some parents took their concerns to social media and hoped a wider audience would help them learn more.
“Inmates are people, and they have rights too,” said one woman.
“And there have been some really critical people, but they aren’t living with their son or daughter in jail.”