Across Michigan, people are mobilizing to support the struggling city of Flint and its residents, who are stuck with lead-contaminated drinking water. Bottled water and filters are collected every week at churches, and radio ads urge people to give what they can.
That effort is also happening behind bars: At a prison a hour and half drive west of Flint, where many men who grew up in the town are now held, inmates are organizing their own donations for the city’s residents.
Inmates at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia have pledged to donate money for bottled water and filters. Shaka Senghor, a former Michigan inmate who visited the prison on Wednesday to give a talk for a Black History Month event, described the effort in a Facebook post and an interview with Fusion.
Before he spoke at the event, Senghor said, one young man stood up and addressed the drab prison auditorium. There were about 250 other male inmates there, he said, dressed in their blue uniforms.
“What he said is that we all come from cities like Flint, if not from Flint,” Senghor told me. “He said our responsibility is to do whatever we could on our end to ensure that the mothers and children and family members left behind would have adequate water.”
“Literally everyone raised their hand to commit to give at least $3,” Senghor said.
That might not sound like a lot to most people, but for a prison inmate, it’s nothing to sneeze at. Many inmates make only about $10 a month at their prison jobs, Senghor said. Those without families supporting them have to use that to buy all of their toiletries and other supplies at the commissary.
Senghor, who spent 19 years in a prison facility near Handlon and is speaking to inmates about his new book, said he was inspired to see the commitment of the inmates. “They’re willing to give more than most of us out here are willing to give,” he said. “Ask someone to give a third of their monthly income, and it’s going to be tough.”
The organizers planned to give donations to a Detroit church and mosque that are raising money for Flint. Holly Kramer, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections, confirmed that inmates at Handlon have talked about raising money for Flint, but noted that no donations had been collected yet.
The donations won't just help suffering families in Flint—they'll also help the inmates maintain their ties with the outside world. “It’s so important for them to be part of society in a meaningful way, to give back even though they’re on the other side of a fence,” Senghor said.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.