By Juliette Rando
It was a sweltering Sunday afternoon in mid-September, but that didn’t stop dozens from gathering outside Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary to demand the closure of a toxic prison - SCI Fayette. In stark contrast to the tourists lining up for the “museum” like prisons are a historical artifact, the speakers emphasized the immediate and dire situation of individuals being poisoned by environmental hazards at SCI Fayette.
“Can’t breathe, can’t eat, can’t smell. For a significant period of time. And then denied medical attention” — that’s how Dana Lomax-Williams summarized the situation for our kinmates incarcerated at Fayette. She explained how an investigation by the Abolitionist Law Center uncovered 17 deaths at Fayette between 2010-2013, 64% of which were due to cancer. This sad reality is a direct result of the fact that SCI Fayette was built on a coal ash dumping site that contaminates the surrounding air and water. The DOC is well aware of this fact - in fact, the drinking water at the prison is so polluted that prison staff sued for access to bottled water for themselves - and their dogs - and won. But they still force those incarcerated there to drink, bathe in, and cook with this poison water. Dana’s message resounded throughout the crowd, “The only option is for us to fight for them or they die.”
Throughout the event, B. Preston Lyles, an organizer with HRC’s #ShutDownFayette campaign who was formerly incarcerated at SCI Fayette, seamlessly wove together the issues of mass incarceration and environmental racism, as he introduced the lineup of speakers including prison abolitionists, labor organizers, and environmental justice advocates. HRC’s Jackson Kusiak walked the crowd through the environmental history of Pennsylvania - from coal mining to fracking - and explained how that legacy of extracting the earth for profit has interfaced with the legacy of extracting human souls for profit through the prison industrial complex. Toxic corporations suck every last resource from the earth, and when there’s nothing left, they turn to warehousing people on that land so they can still turn a profit. That’s why SCI Fayette was built. And that’s why people incarcerated there are forced to drink the water- because they are treated as just another resource that can be extracted and then thrown away.
Yet the crowd’s energy was that of determination, not despair. As BP elucidated, “We have been working to accomplish a mission that requires as many voices and as many votes and as loud of a scream as we can muster. This needs to be amplified all across the commonwealth, and the nation.”