Added Punishment…Prisoners Exposed to Nearby Coal Waste Dump

Sunday, September 07, 2014
State Correctional Institution Fayette

“…You have hereby been sentenced to respiratory problems, gastrointestinal ailments, skin rashes and an early grave.”


Pennsylvania judges don’t actually utter those words, but that’s the result. An investigation of a prison which is located next to a coal ash dump showed that many prisoners are falling ill and have a higher mortality rate than most such facilities.


A report by the Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition details the health problems of inmates at the State Correctional Institution Fayette in LaBelle. It found that 11 prisoners died from cancer from January 2010 to December 2013, six have been diagnosed with cancer and eight more have undiagnosed tumors or lumps. The prison has the third-highest mortality rate among Pennsylvania institutions. One of the top two serves as a nursing home for elderly prisoners, the other has a high population of older prisoners serving life terms.


Seventy-five Fayette prisoners participated in the research. Of the participants:

—More than 81% of responding prisoners reported respiratory, throat, and sinus conditions;

—68% of responding prisoners experienced gastrointestinal problems;

—52% reported experiencing adverse skin conditions, and;

—12% of prisoners reported either being diagnosed with a thyroid disorder at SCI Fayette, or having existing thyroid problems exacerbated after transfer to the prison.


According to the report, the symptoms mentioned by the inmates did not appear until they were housed at Fayette.


“It’s scary,” Ann Schwartzman, executive director of The Pennsylvania Prison Society, an advocacy organization for state prison inmates, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “If it’s true, the state needs to take immediate action. Inmates receive their punishment through sentencing and shouldn’t be further punished by unhealthy conditions in prison.”


The prison and the adjoining coal ash dump are on the site of an old strip mine. The dump contains 40 million tons of coal mining waste rock, two coal slurry ponds and millions of cubic yards of fly ash from two coal-burning power plants, according to the Post-Gazette.


In addition to the health problems suffered by inmates, the prison itself isn’t doing too well. Inmates report that the prison, built in 2003, is sinking, likely because of subsidence because of the earlier mining there. In addition, much of the plumbing had to be dug up and hung above ground because of possible pipe corrosion caused by the coal waste in the soil.


“Human beings should not have to live in a toxic waste dump just because they’ve been convicted of a crime,” Bret Grote, legal director for the Abolitionist Law Center, told the Post-Gazette. “Building this prison in a coal refuse site shows a disregard for prisoners and staff, and further investigation is needed about how the prison was permitted and sited where it was.”

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Groups Say Fly Ash Near State Prison In Fayette County Causing Health Problems (by Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette (Abolitionist Law Center and Human Rights Coalition) (pdf)


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