Editor’s Desk

Prison accused of killing inmates slowly

Frank Diamond
Managing Editor

There are few issues that unite the political polarities these day, but there seems to be consensus emerging about this: We dump too many people in prison, including dumping them on a former coal ash landfill, a situation sparking controversy in a corner of Pennsylvania.

Liberals might see overpopulated prisons as resulting from, say, police profiling, while conservatives might believe, for instance, that there are just too many nonsensical laws on the books. The bottom line: The United States imprisons more people than any other country.

State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette County in Pennsylvania, housing 2,000 prisoners and opening in 2003, rests on top of a former coalmine and next to a 500-acre coal ash dump in rural Luzerne township. Not good and possibly unconstitutional, charge two human rights organizations, the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) and the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) in a recently issued study (http://tinyurl.com/coal-prison).

They cite the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment, and building a prison on a “massive toxic coal waste dump” might be just that. Over 40 million tons of coal waste had been dumped on the site “at depths approaching 150 feet in some places.” The study states that, “Ash is regularly seen blowing off the site … and collecting on the houses of local residents as well as the prison grounds at SCI Fayette.”

Researchers began surveying prisoners in Aug. 2013, and by last July found that:

  • 81% reported respiratory problems, which include sores, cysts and tumors in the nose, mouth, and throat
  • 68% reported gastrointestinal problems, including bloody stools and vomiting
  • 52% reported skin conditions such as rashes, hives, and abscesses
  • 12% reported thyroid problems

In addition, 11 prisoners died from cancer between Jan. 2010 and Dec. 2013, and another six reported being diagnosed with cancer.

Of course, self-reported data can skew any study, a problem the authors admit, saying that “the inherent limitations of the survey make it impossible to empirically show that prisoners at SCI-Fayette are getting sick at an unusually high rate or that these illnesses are caused by pollution at the dump.”

More study is needed, of course. But the researchers argue that the patterns they found are “alarming,” especially the respiratory problems because they are the symptoms most associated with airborne pollution. They also argue that prisoners are prone to under-report health problems so as to not appear vulnerable, or raise the ire of guards.

The ACL and the HRC know they lead a fight that not too many others will join. We’re talking about prisoners, after all, many who’ve committed heinous crimes. It’s tempting to think that they deserve whatever plague blows their way.

The Shawshank Redemption makes many lists of the greatest movies of all time. In it, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a man imprisoned for murdering his wife and her lover, tells Red Redding (Morgan Freeman) that he didn’t commit the crime. Red tells Andy that he’ll fit right in because: “Everyone in here is innocent, you know that?”

No one at SCI Fayette is innocent in the eyes of the law, and so have forfeited some of their Constitutional rights. But not all of them.