Recently, a group of human rights researchers, responding to letters from Fayette prisoners, found a slew of environmental dangers and threats to the lives, health and well-being of hundreds of prisoners, guards and other staff members at the prison in Western Pennsylvania. The Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition, with the help of the Center for Coalfield Justice, sent questionnaires into the prison, and visited prisoners willing to talk.
They found that the prison, built in the midst of a massive coal waste dump filled to the brim with toxic fly ash, caused or was a significant contributor to nearly a dozen cancer deaths, and serious life-threatening diseases and disorders.
The Abolitionist Law Center and Human Rights Coalition investigated the claims, researched the science, and came up with a damning 23-page report. The report, entitled “No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette,” reads like a horror story of medical neglect, callousness and human suffering.
In addition to the 11 fatal cases of cancer, half a dozen others have been diagnosed with cancer, others suffering from respiratory ailments, and 68% of respondents claimed undiagnosed ailments, including boils, cysts and both internal and external swellings throughout their bodies. One Fayette prisoner, Marcus Santos, experienced swelling in his throat, on his face, arms and legs. He was afraid he would choke to death. Santos wrote to investigators: “I suffered almost every day of the 15 months I was at that prison. I almost died due to throat swelling several times. Given tums for throat swelling and told that if I start choking there is nothing that he can do for me. At that point it became clear to me that I am being left for dead. With no other course to take or relief in sight I called my brother and told him that I don’t believe I’m going to make it through the rest of my time and to please take care of my son.” [p.9]
The ALC/HRC report, No Escape, is full of such heart-rending comments and events. The culprit here is the wide array of chemicals on the surrounding dump site from the fly ash and coal waste, which includes: mercury, lead, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, cadmium, boron, and thallium.
The other culprit? The PA Department of Corrections, which chose to build a prison in the midst of a toxic waste dump. In Pennsylvania, every prison sentence can be a death sentence.