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Siting Prisons on Coal Ash Dumps

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I know it’s the national pastime to degrade prisoners. But siting prisons on top of a coal ash dump, as Pennsylvania did in 2000, really should be a violation of the Eighth Amendment since giving them horrible illnesses just because the state’s contracting process was so shoddy as to allow this is indeed cruel and unusual punishment.

Soon after arriving at SCI Fayette, Foskey began to notice that “trucks were dumping this black stuff on top of the mountain.” At the time he didn’t know what it was, but he wasn’t the only one who noticed. Eric Garland, a guard at the prison, was familiar with the dangers of coal ash; his father has worked at a coal-fired power plant for 30 years. In 2010, he contacted the Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ) with worries about the dump after he was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. Concerns about the environmental and health effects of coal ash have been widespread in Pennsylvania for years. The state produces more than 15.4 million tons of the stuff a year, the most in the nation. Coal ash typically contains arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and selenium—toxins that if ingested can cause cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory problems, and a host of other ailments. Drinking water from a well near an unlined coal-slurry pond, like the one the coal-ash dump in La Belle was built on top of, increases your chance of getting cancer to one in 50.

After the CCJ heard from Garland, they forwarded his complaint to the ALC, a public-interest law firm in Pittsburgh that works on cases involving human rights abuses in prisons. In August 2013, the ALC began interviewing prisoners about their health issues and environmental concerns. In all, 75 inmates agreed to participate, but only 14 would be quoted by name, fearing retaliation from the prison. In “No Escape,” a report released on September 2, 2014, the ALC outlined the health issues people were experiencing in the prison, including skin conditions, throat and respiratory illnesses, thyroid issues, and tumors. Out of the 75 people surveyed, 61 reported experiencing breathing and sinus conditions, 51 had experienced gastrointestinal issues, 39 had experienced skin issues, and nine had been diagnosed with a thyroid disease or had a previously diagnosed thyroid issue that worsened after incarceration at SCI Fayette. The report also noted an alarming rate of cancer—11 of the 17 prisoners who died at SCI Fayette between 2010 and 2013 passed away from the disease.

Perhaps most concerning in the report were the inmate accounts of lack of medical attention and, in some cases, accusations of medical neglect. Darin Hauman, an inmate at SCI Fayette since 2010 who works in the prison infirmary, outlined how medical staff deprived a sick man (who later died of brain cancer) of drinking water. He told the ALC, “In his last few weeks of life certain nursing staff deliberately induced dehydration by simply refusing to assist him in drinking water. No hydration by way of intravenously either. With healthy humans it takes a short time being dehydrated for organs to begin shutting down. Regarding Greg, I would have to sneak into his ward area, I would have to dip my finger into water to moisten his lips as they were ‘glued’ shut, then would have to drip a few drops of water onto his tongue just so he could use a straw to get a few sips of water. Of all things I was yelled at numerous times for doing this. This pisses me off each time I think of this. To deny a man a drink of water speaks volumes as to the ideology of this particular nursing staff.”

Let’s face it, from the moment people, who are predominantly people of color as in this prison, enter the criminal justice system, they are treated as subhuman, whether by cops, prison guards, prison doctors, whoever. It’s a national shame. Or it would be if this nation was capable of shame. As the article states at the end, this is a case when environmental justice and prison reform are two movements that should be deeply intertwined.

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