“America’s Trash Can”: Toxic Prisons and Environmental Racism

By Emma Schwartz

You can’t escape the toxins in the water at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution Fayette. When I interviewed BP, who was incarcerated at SCI Fayette for 10 years, he spoke of how you feel it every time you take a sip, when you brush your teeth, when you try to get clean in the shower. Almost everyone inside reports signs of water pollution such as discoloration and tasting and smelling of sulfur. The guards avoid it at all costs, drinking from bottled water, which is considered contraband for the people incarcerated there. Report after report from people on the inside describe pervasive black dust everywhere you go, collecting in the prison yard, on window sills, on freshly fallen snow, building up around the vents inside cells. One incarcerated person wrote, “You clean it, and about an hour later the dust is back,”


Coal defines the landscape of SCI Fayette and the nearby town of Labelle. SCI Fayette was built in 2003 on top of what was once one of the largest coal preparation plants in the world. An estimated 40 million tons of coal refuse were dumped between the 1950s and mid-1990s, at which point the plant was purchased by Matt Canestrale Contracting, which began operating the site as a coal ash dump. In 2014, The Citizens Coal Council (CCC), a non-profit, collected water samples at streams, wells, and drainage pipes at the Labelle site revealing the presence of high levels of toxic metals associated with coal ash in the surface and groundwater. The samples they collected contained levels of dissolved iron over 60 times greater than the Pennsylvania standard, sulfate levels 10 times the standard, and manganese levels five times the standard. Manganese in particular can cause permanent brain damage through long term exposure, irritate the nose, throat, and lungs, and may cause harm to the liver and decrease fertility in males.



Further testing by CCC also found levels exceeding state or federal standards for thallium, arsenic, cobalt, boron, aluminum, total dissolved solids, and excessively high and low pH levels. This is all very dangerous. Thallium is the main ingredient in rat poison and can cause nervous system damage and lung, heart, liver, and kidney problems. Arsenic can cause nervous system damage, cardiovascular harm, urinary tract cancers, lung cancer, and skin cancer. Boron can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, cause damage to the testes, intestines, liver, kidneys, and brain, and eventually lead to death if ingested in large quantities. Aluminum can cause scarring of lungs with symptoms of cough and shortness of breath through long-term exposure to its dust, and may be linked to dementia.


An aerial photograph of SCI Fayette


The most commonly reported health problems are respiratory, throat, and sinus-related conditions. One incarcerated person wrote in to the Toxic Prisons and Environmental Justice Committee of the Human Rights Coalition (HRC), a grass-roots non profit organization in Philadelphia, saying that since being transferred from SCI Houtzdale to SCI Fayette in 2016, he has experienced throat irritation so bad that he has to clear his throat at least 50 times an hour, as well as discoloration of certain areas of his skin. Another prisoner, Marcus Santos, experienced swelling on his face, arms, and legs after being transferred to SCI Fayette which was so severe that a doctor confirmed it was life-threatening. “I suffered almost everyday of the 15 months I was at that prison” he wrote. “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.”


Other commonly reported medical issues at SCI Fayette include skin irritation, diarrhea, burning eyes, stomach pain, nausea, rashes, extreme itchiness, and frequent headaches. One incarcerated person wrote to the HRC saying, “My whole entire body has broken out. The water is getting worse everyday. I have hives. I scratch all day. I have soares [sic] around my body. My face have so many bumps on it. My skin is irritated 24/7 throughout my sleep. I have stomach pains, diarrhea, painful rashes, etc. I literally itch while taking a shower. It’s sad because I’m locked up on this life threatening conditioning. […] I have big black spot on my back that looks like moles. […] I’m itching as I write this letter. I feel as though this jail itself is committing a crime. Attempted murder. This area is not for human consumption.”


When it comes to cancer and other illnesses that require a diagnosis, it is extremely difficult to get a true sense of the numbers. Several people at SCI Fayette have reported that medical staff will delay diagnostic testing until it seems that patients will not survive without emergency medical care, and carry an attitude of hostility toward inmates. One incarcerated person reported to the HRC that he has “seen guys literally vomiting, and nursing staff will say, ‘oh he’s just faking it.’” Another, who suffered from brain cancer, wrote in a letter to the HRC, “I’ve been asking medical for some type of CT scan for years because I was having headaches everyday. They keep telling me it was my sinus but I knew it was more than that. They sent me out for a CT scan and when I return, the medical staff here told me nothing was on my CT scan and they did not see anything. The day after that I passed out and was rush to Allegheny Hospital. They took another CT scan and found the cancer, it was at stage four and went to my skull.” The state of medical care at SCI Fayette care makes it more difficult to determine the cause of the illnesses that prisoners face at the institution, as the effects of medical negligence are combined with possible reactions to coal ash.

The fact that this prison is built on coal dumping grounds, paralleled with the treatment the prisoners there receive, reflects the societal belief that incarcerated people don’t matter. In a book chapter titled “Environmental Racism: Contaminated Water in Indigenous and Minority Communities,” Linda M. Robyn writes, “Environmental quality and inequality depend on one’s place in the world.” Those in society with fewer resources, who aren’t granted the freedom to choose the space they will live in—whether that is because of poverty, deportation, colonialism, or incarceration—can’t escape the environmentally unsafe conditions that people in positions of power have created.


In her book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, geographer and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned and extralegal exposure of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Given the disproportionate number of Black and Brown people incarcerated in the United States, locking people up in toxic prisons and putting them at risk of death is a clear form of environmental racism, and should be of utmost concern to anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist. Western capitalist ideologies have long looked upon colonized land and people as “waste” that they can put to use. BP spoke of how people have been enculturated to believe that incarcerated people should be rejected, ignored, and thrown away: “the prison in America is the trash can—it is where they send people that they no longer wish to be bothered with.”


The voices of incarcerated people are silenced in every way—it is part of the isolation of prison—and have therefore been left out of social movements relating to issues that they are most affected by, such as the environment. According to professor Elizabeth A Bradshaw in her article “Tombstone Towns and Toxic Prisons,” people in prison are not considered in any of the EPA’s policies. Incarcerated people are dehumanized and ignored, making environmental issues in prisons a niche issue that many remain unaware of. BP says, “the incarcerated people’s voices being stifled is the continual residue of what this nation was founded on from the very beginning: separation, segregation, classism, one-upmanship, superiority, inferiority, identity conflicts, and tussles of worth and value.” When the voices of incarcerated people are ignored, it perpetuates further ignorance. “There is a lack of value of the strength, courage, insights that certain incarcerated people can bring to any table,” he continues. “Once the voices of the incarcerated are heard, it will allow those who are functional in movements like the environmental movements, to broaden their view.”


Image credit: Herald Standard

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