Deeper Than Water: Amplifying The Voices of the Incarcerated

“…the wall of a so-called ‘correctional institution’ is not there to keep the incarcerated from getting out. It’s there to keep you from looking in.”



The water supply at MCI Norfolk, Massachusetts’s largest prison, has been contaminated for the past 8 years. The prison houses an all-male population, predominantly low-income and people of color. The prison, once home to Malcolm X, has been operating with a substandard water supply for years, even after a Massachusetts government-funded study found that 43% of the samples collected contained dangerously high levels of manganese, which when consumed continuously, can lead to Parkinson’s-like symptoms and other detrimental physiological effects.

Deeper Than Water, a multigenerational coalition of formerly and currently incarcerated people and allies, has been working to “expose the rampant human rights abuses that prisoners in the United States are subjected to, using the lens of water justice to highlight the toxicity of the carceral state.”


Environmental Racism

Low-income communities and communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by environmental issues for decades inside and outside the U.S. Neighborhoods with predominantly low-income families and people of color experience more pollution, and/ or denial of access to clean water, clean air, and other natural resources. The lack of access to basic resources such as water is generally preventable, but lawmakers continually fail to take action to support these neighborhoods. Some examples of environmental racism include the Flint, Michigan lead contamination, the Dakota Access Pipeline invasion, and the disproportionate impacts as a result of the Cape Town water crisis. Could the fact that the water contamination is mostly affecting people of color and low-income people explain the lack of action from officials?


The prison sells 16-ounce bottles for 65 cents, about one-third of an inmate’s average daily wage.


The water is regularly brown, and filters in the communal sinks of housing units are routinely clogged with sediment.


State environmental officials denied many of the inmates’ allegations and insisted the prison’s water is safe.




Officials have continually failed to take action in response to complaints from prisoners. Could negative media representations impact our empathy or lack thereof for prisoners? “If you wanted clean water maybe you should have obeyed the law”…  How can we expect lawmakers to help people when rhetoric like that is so pervasive?

Prisoners are often demonized and dehumanized in the media and popular culture.


An important part of advocacy and countering these negative representations is telling the stories of incarcerated people and amplifying their voices.

Folks at Deeper Than Water are working on a campaign to do just that. If you know anyone or have a connection to anyone at MCI-Norfolk please take a few minutes to answer this survey: 



Wayland Coleman

Wayland Coleman was placed in solitary confinement for 10 days after correctional officers found multiple cases of bottled water in Coleman’s cell. Because prisoners are not allowed to stockpile one item from the cantine, Coleman was punished for having the water that he had planned on distributing to other inmates. Wayland was released on March 30th after friends and family sent letters, made calls and protested outside the prison. Wayland was also on hunger and water strike while in solitary until he was given clean (bottled) water.

Read the letter below written to the Deeper Than Water Coalition on his second day in solitary.















Read More about Wayland Coleman here


From the inside: 

“One must sneak around and break rules just to shower”

Inmates have designated shower times, and the visibly contaminated water flows through the taps sporadically, so to avoid showering in contaminated water, inmates must shower during non-designated periods, risking punitive repercussions.


“On a daily basis and at random times of day, our water turns so black and filled with sediment that you cannot see through it”

Many prisoners have experienced sicknesses and medical complications as a result of the water.


“We call it Norfolk Coffee”

The water at MCI Norfolk has earned this nickname due to its dark color and high turbidity.


*not actual water from MCI-Norfolk*


“ [The Massachusetts Correctional Institution] is designed to label, dehumanize, and warehouse men and women who are primarily from [the] lower class, poor, and poverty-stricken communities, while keeping society blind and ignorant of the inhumanities of incarceration”

“…the wall of a so-called ‘correctional institution’ is not there to keep the incarcerated from getting out. It’s there to keep you from looking in.”

 – Wayland Coleman


Call to Action!

If you haven’t already, please take a moment to answer the survey above if you know someone, or even if you know someone who knows someone currently or formerly incarcerated at MCI-Norfolk. The most effective way to influence officials is to tell the stories of those who are negatively impacted by the conditions at MCI-Norfolk. 

Contact Local Legislators! For Massachusetts Residents: Follow the instructions here to contact your representatives to make a difference. 

Spread the Word! Follow Deeper Than Water on social media and follow/ use the hashtag to help amplify the voices of the silenced. 


You have the power to improve the lives of those who have been mistreated and silenced, use it!




Democracy Now! “Punished for Distributing Clean Water, MA Prisoner Enters Hunger Strike.”Democracy Now!, 30 Mar. 2018,

“Dispatches from Environments Past – Page 6 – Curious Topics & Moments in America’s Environmental History.” Dispatches from Environments Past,

Melosi, Martin V. “Equity, Eco-Racism and Environmental History.” Environmental History Review 19, no. 3 (1995): 1-16. doi:10.2307/3984909.

Walker, Craig F. “Norfolk Inmate Starts Hunger Strike over Water – The Boston Globe.”, 24 Mar. 2018,

Walker, Craig F. “Water at State’s Largest Prison Raises Concerns – The Boston Globe.”, 17 June 2017,

Share this project
  1. April 27, 2018 by Portia.McKoy

    Hello Rebecca. This is an amazing project and ver informative on a subject so prevalent and important today. I think that one thing that I have definitely noticed in recent years is the amount of mistreatment of prisoners in the prison system from food to verbal and physical abuse for people of color. So one question that I have for you is do you see any differences in the way that white prisoners are treated, and if not what do you predict could be the differences? Thanks!

    • April 29, 2018 by Rebecca.Mironko

      I think the difference is not between how white prisoners are treated in comparison to prisoners of color, but rather how predominantly white prisons are treated in comparison to prisons that house mostly people of color.
      These differences often include overcrowding, funding, health services, educational services and support for women and juveniles.

  2. April 27, 2018 by Kelsey.Russell

    Rebecca, your project clearly lays out the important facts of how prisoners are consistently dehumanized rather than rehabilitated. I really enjoyed the way you focused on one prison and one person. It made your project feel more personal. The direct way you allowed your audience to follow up on your project made us feel like we could make a difference. I was wondering what your favorite depiction of prisoners for whatever reason?

  3. April 29, 2018 by marisa

    Thank you so much for sharing this project! It was clearly much needed since I didn’t know any of this information. What got you interested in this?

    • April 29, 2018 by Rebecca.Mironko

      I had previously been interested in issues of environmental racism, and then I read an article in a small, local newspaper about the water at MCI-Norfolk which really surprised me. We often consider Massachusetts to be progressive and a better place for marginalized folks, but this highlighted a different perspective, which really got me interested.

  4. May 01, 2018 by Hannah Siegel

    This is a truly incredible project. I was aware of both environmental racism and the racism within our criminal justice system. Before this project, I had never considered how the two might intersect. Your project was extremely relevant and eye-opening, and I really value your emphasis on prisoners’ stories and voices. It was an incredibly humanizing portrayal of the injustice they face. I loved your calls to action, and the letter from Wayland Coleman. Thank you so much for making this project.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.