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  • “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

  • Stop Solitary, Stop Torture! Rally and Press Conference

    Join the Human Rights Coalition, Abolitionist Law Center, and the Solidarity Not Solitary PA-CAIC campaign on June 1 for a rally and public call to End Solitary Confinement in PA! Survivors of solitary will share why the practice is so damaging and why it stands as one of the central and most oppressive aspects of the state’s prison system of warehousing and control. We will also honor and stand in solidarity with those currently in the Hole as they undergo the dehumanizing isolation of solitary, and call on ourselves as a community to stand with them. There will be a replica of a solitary cell and the chance to write to and connect with people in solitary, and to donate to the solidarity fund for people inside prison. The following day on June 2 at 10am there will be a press conference to announce new legislation that would limit solitary to 15 days--in keeping with the UN’s international standards--and also prevent people under 21, LGBTQ people, and aging people from being held in solitary. PA House Reps Tina Davis and Donna Bullock and others will introduce the legislation, as will Senators John Kane and Katie Muth, and survivors of solitary will speak about how people inside prisons are the center and source for this work. Please join us! Check out the facebook event here.

  • Solidarity Not Solitary

    By Val Kiebala The coronavirus sparked an unprecedented public health crisis in the U.S., hitting prisons and jails especially hard. In the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections alone, 112 incarcerated people have reportedly died from the virus, though advocates believe the number may be even higher. But the response of the PADOC and prison administrators across the country to lock down the incarcerated population in solitary confinement created another national pandemic: a mental health crisis. In 2011, Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture at the time, declared, “Any imposition of solitary confinement beyond 15 days constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Yet, during the past year, departments of corrections across the country inflicted this torturous practice on upwards of 300,000 people often for months at a time, in the name of curbing the pandemic. Public health experts condemned the use of solitary not only because of its harrowing psychological effects but also because the threat of isolation has proven to deter people from reporting symptoms, ultimately exacerbating the spread of sickness. Tyree Little, who spent eight or nine years in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania prisons, said, “Being in solitary can be even more depressing because of what’s going on. You really don’t get access to news media and all that or the TV to watch the news or contact your family, so you’re going to be even more depressed not knowing if your loved ones are catching COVID.” One of the most harmful aspects of the department’s mismanagement of the pandemic, according to Little, is the lack of access to visitation and phone calls. The last in-person visit was on March 11. And while of course, physical contact must be limited with the outside world to contain the virus, Little says that pervasive technical difficulties prevent incarcerated people from communicating with their loved ones. While the PADOC originally used the Zoom application for video visitation, they switched to a telecommunications company called Polycom a few months ago. “It’s bad,” Little said. “Sometimes you can’t even hear them. You can see your folks but you can’t hear them. So y’all trying to do sign language or write on a piece of paper. The quality is bad on this new system they’re using.” JT, who spent a total of 14 years in solitary during his time in prison, said, “I know quite a few people who have been on [video visits through Polycom] and most people say the same thing: that they sit there and waited and waited and waited and nothing happened. They called the prison to try to find out what happened and couldn’t get no answers, so they never got their visit…I don’t know why they would switch it from Zoom to [Polycom].” Contact with family and loved ones on the outside has been proven to significantly reduce the likelihood of someone returning to prison. And depriving someone of the right to communicate with loved ones has deeply damaging effects. A study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that even just one visit reduced the likelihood of recidivism by 13 percent for new crimes and 25 percent for technical violations. “All in all,” JT said, “I think that the lockdown that the DOC is under means the whole state prison system is in solitary for real because they’re not getting out of their cells. They say sometimes they don’t even get out for their phone calls and stuff…If they say they don’t have enough guards, then you’re not coming out. It’s a really bad situation.” Even long before the pandemic, solitary confinement has been at the crux of mass incarceration, warehousing several tens of thousands of people in squalid conditions. Depriving people of human contact and sensory stimulation has been destroying the minds and bodies of incarcerated people ever since the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia first used the practice in 1790. Since then, the practice has inflicted violence on Black, Brown, indigenous, and poor communities across the country. Tyree Little and JT are both lead organizers of the Solidarity Not Solitary (SNS) campaign, which aims to eliminate the use of solitary for longer than fifteen consecutive days across the state of Pennsylvania. The SNS campaign has developed legislation that would implement this ban on solitary in alignment with international human rights standards. Abundant amounts of research has proven solitary confinement to be an ineffective penological tool that causes lasting psychological damage to anyone subjected to it. People held in solitary confinement are already more likely to harm themselves or even kill themselves. In January 2020, the PADOC reported holding 2,500 people in solitary confinement in state prisons. And people in solitary are nearly seven times more likely to self-harm than people held in general population. Half of youth suicides in custody occurred in solitary confinement. Additionally, 95 percent of people in prison are eventually released back to society. And between 2008 and 2014, the PADOC released over 400 people directly from solitary back into the community. “Even with myself, being in solitary so long,” Little said, “when they released me back to population, I couldn’t walk too close to people. I didn’t want people walking too close to me. I ain’t used to no human contact…So imagine, I seen people in the RHU released straight home after 20 years of being in solitary confinement. How can you release some-one like that straight back to society? It’s like they’re doomed to fail. No counseling. No nothing. It’s like taking a wild lion out the zoo and just releasing him into the woods.” In addition to making communities more dangerous, holding someone in solitary confinement for a year costs significantly more than holding someone in general population. Eliminating the use of solitary confinement would save the state $75 million a year. JT says that money should be used for “programs that are open to everybody. Programs that actually get you ready for society, as opposed to some of those BS programs they run now. Programs that would actually help people’s skills. Giving people training for differ-ent occupations. Preparing people for when they’re re-leased.” Ultimately, the goal of the SNS campaign is to eliminate solitary confinement across the state of Pennsylvania and replace it with humane, effective practices that keep incarcerated people, correctional officers, and our communities safe and healthy. Anyone interested in becoming involved with the Solidarity Not Solitary campaign through the Inside Advocacy Project, please write to the Human Rights Coalition, attn.: Solitary; PO Box 34580, Philadelphia, PA 19101.

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  • CALENDAR | HumanRightsCoalition

    Calendar of Events . HRC hosts several virtual meetings on zoom on a monthly basis. We invite you to join our general meetings, letter writing events, and get involved in one of our subcommittees (Toxic Prisons, Solidarity Not Solitary, and Media). All are welcome! Sync HRC's calendar with yours!

  • HOME | HumanRightsCoalition

    HUMAN RIGHTS COALITION WHO WE ARE ABOUT OUR MEMBERS The Human Rights Coalition (HRC) is a grassroots non-profit group of currently and formerly incarcerated people, their families, and supporters. It was formed to support families in coping with the stress and hardships created by having a loved one incarcerated, as well as to challenge the punitive, retributive nature of the penal system and to work to transform that to a model of rehabilitation and successful reintegration to society. WHAT WE DO Toxic Prisons. Solitary Confinement. Lack of response to the COVID 19 crisis. Police Brutality. These are just some of the issues we are organizing around. Learn more about our work below. OUR CAMPAIGNS HOW YOU CAN HELP GET INVOLVED LATEST NEWS & CURRENT ACTIONS READ MORE CALENDAR “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... Stop Solitary, Stop Torture! Rally and Press Conference Join the Human Rights Coalition, Abolitionist Law Center, and the Solidarity Not Solitary PA-CAIC campaign on June 1 for a rally and... Solidarity Not Solitary By Val Kiebala The coronavirus sparked an unprecedented public health crisis in the U.S., hitting prisons and jails especially hard. In... THE MOVE MENT Since 2001, HRC has published The Movement, a powerful voice for public awareness that serves both to connect incarcerated people to the outside world and to plug the public into issues affecting incarcerated people. It represents the voices, faces, causes, and ideas of incarcerated people and their families. View Latest Issue

  • ABOUT | HumanRightsCoalition

    Line separator ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS COALITION MISSION . Our mission is to empower prisoners’ families to be leaders in prison organizing and to teach them how to advocate on behalf of their loved ones in prison and expose the inhumane practices of the Department of Corrections. HISTORY . The Human Rights Coalition had its first meeting on June 4, 2001 at the house of the mother of one of the men who helped conceive the idea of HRC. ​ The meeting was small and a mix of prisoners’ family members and former prisoners. Many of those who attended, felt powerless in the face of the prison administration and its institutionalized discrimination, abuse, and torture. Yet the lives and well being of their loved ones were at stake – something they could not turn their backs to. ​ At the end of the meeting, however, there was a consensus that a great deal of powerful energy is lying untapped, that if properly focused could change the status quo of the prison system. The source of untapped energy was the constituency of former prisoners and prisoners’ families in this country. Thus HRC was formed, to aid and support prisoners’ families in coping with the stress and hardships created by having a loved one incarcerated, as well as to challenge the punitive retributive nature of the penal system; and, to work to transform that to a model of rehabilitation and successful reintegration to society. VISION . The prison system is based on a foundation of exploitation, punishment and corruption. Most of the people in prison are poor, brown, urban, functionally illiterate, unemployed or under-employed before they were locked down, and are there for non-violent crimes. It reflects all the other social inequalities in our system, and it does not work in its current incarnation. HRC’s ultimate goal is to dismantle and abolish the prison system and replace it with accountability, safety, fairness, and resilience, while focusing on healing instead of punishing. ​ We envision transparency within the criminal justice system – as no one should be above the law. We envision new laws to stop torture and abuse of prisoners, and for the public to show outrage not only for the prisoners in Iraq and other international locations of conflict, but also for prisoners’ rights here in the United States. We envision the prison officials and administration (i.e., guards, counselors, etc.) being held accountable for their actions or in-actions. We envision a “coalition” of families and organizations who seek to eliminate prison abuse and stand up for the human rights of prisoners by educating the public, advocating with prison officials, and lobbying state legislators. WHAT WE DO . Empowerment & Advocacy: We provide a safe place for family members of prisoners where there is no embarrassment associated with having a loved one in prison; HRC members are facing the same stigma, restrictions, dilemmas that you are going through this very minute. We respond to the letters asking for HRC’s help by educating family members on how to build a support system and organize their family, neighbors, and church around their individual issues. We also assure our members that abuse and torture will not be tolerated. The Michael Brown and Eric Garner crimes that were openly committed and excused are routine within the Department of Corrections and affiliations. ​ Bull Horn & Watch Dogs: We collectively address issues of abuse or torture (Emergency Response Network) using Facebook and Email to alert HRC members of reported and confirmed prisoner abuses and/or violations of human rights. To stand up against such violations we bring public awareness, by broadcasting on social media, radio, and newspapers; calling and/or writing to the prison, informing our legislators, and finally collaborating with supporters (i.e., Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project) in moving forward with next steps. A long-term struggle and the den of abuse and torture has been solitary confinement. We fight for a permanent change in the use and abuse of solitary confinement through legislation [could we include a link to our legislative packet of information about solitary confinement here?]. Two bills have been introduced (House Bill 497 and Senate Bill 832) that will end long term solitary confinement which is a noteworthy step in our in our fight for human rights. Learn more about our Solitary Confinement Work

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