Soon after Marcus Santos became a prisoner at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution (SCI) in Fayette, he says he began feeling sick. He developed a rash on his left side with large welts. He became dizzy, nauseous, and experienced shortness of breath. His face and throat would swell, making it difficult to breathe. At night, the symptoms were the worst.
“I suffered almost everyday of the 15 months I was at that prison,” he said. “It became clear to me that I [was] being left for dead.”
Eventually, a doctor outside the prison recommended Santos be transferred to another prison, and he was — to the SCI in Smithfield, more than 300 miles away. Since then, Santos’ symptoms have “subsided substantially or completely,” according to the public interest law firm who interviewed him.
That interview is part of a report released by the law firm this week detailing “alarming rates of illness” at SCI Fayette. The Abolishionist Law Center’s report, based on a year-long investigation, drew a link between those rates of illness and the prisoners’ proximity to large amounts coal ash, a toxic waste byproduct of burning coal.
According to the ALC, which works to end mass incarceration of minorities and poor people, SCI Fayette is “inescapably situated in the midst of a massive toxic waste dump.” The facility is located within 500 feet of a 500-acre coal refuse disposal site, which contains about 40 million tons of waste, including two coal slurry ponds and millions of cubic yards of coal ash piled high on top of the coal refuse, the report said. Coal ash ponds contain lead, arsenic and mercury.
Likely because of their exposure to pollutants from the site, the report said a large majority of the incarcerated people interviewed — 81 percent — are experiencing respiratory and throat conditions, ranging anywhere from general sinus problems to sores, cysts, and tumors in the nose, mouth, and throat. Sixty-eight percent of prisoners interviewed are experiencing gastrointestinal problems, the report said, and 52 percent have reported skin conditions like rashes and cysts. Twelve percent of prisoners interviewed said they have issues with their thyroid gland.
The percentages are preliminary, as they are only based on those prisoners who responded to ALC’s questionnaires. Only 75 prisoners were interviewed out of the maximum security prison’s current population of 1,986 inmates. The report noted that eleven prisoners have died from cancer at SCI Fayette between 2010 and 2013, and that another six prisoners have being diagnosed while at SCI Fayette, though it is not clear whether those cases were directly caused by coal ash pollution.
“There needs to be an independent and comprehensive study of the health of people at the prison and in the surrounding community,” Bret Grote, an author of the report, told Reuters.
If it is indeed found that prisoners at SCI Fayette are inescapably enclosed in a place that’s harmful to their health, the ALC report noted that the prison may be unconstitutional in its location, and should be shut down. The Eighth Amendment states that prisons are not allowed to impose conditions of incarceration that deprive prisoners of their basic human needs, which the ALC argues include clean air.
“Situating a prison in the midst of a massive toxic coal waste dump may be impermissible under the Constitution if it is shown that prisoners face a substantial risk of serious harm caused by exposure to pollutants from the dump,” the report states. “Prisoners at SCI Fayette need environmental justice: access to clean air and water, prompt diagnostic care, required surgical treatment, and all other necessary medical care.”
State Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the department would review its findings. “We take these matters seriously,” she said.
Coal ash is the second-largest form of waste generated in the United States. The main way America currently stores the polluted byproduct of coal-fired power production is in man-made “ponds” — big, black, sludgy, lakes of arsenic, lead, and mercury. It’s not known exactly how many of these ponds exist throughout the United States, though the EPA estimates there are around 600, storing coal ash for potential reuse in concrete, cement, or drywall, or for nothing at all.
Ash ponds have a history of leaching concentrated toxins into rivers, groundwater, and soil. Pollution from the ponds can harm human health, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility, which states that coal ash toxics “have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality.” However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not currently classify coal ash as a hazardous waste.
As for the prisoners, the ALC acknowledges that their report is only preliminary, and that more research needs to be done “to better understand both the risks posed by the dump and the nature of prisoners’ health problems.”
“Nonetheless, these preliminary findings raise legal questions about the location of the prison,” the center said in a statement. “If the patterns of illnesses we’re seeing at SCI-Fayette are indeed related to pollution from the dump, then this prison should be shut down.”