Report Investigates Pennsylvania Prison’s Proximity to Coal Operations

LA BELLE, Pa. — The Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association will conduct a health survey of present and former members working at State Correctional Institution – Fayette (SCI Fayette) in La Belle as well as three other prisons built near coal ash disposal or coal mining operations in the state.

The decision to conduct a health survey is a direct response to the report released on Sept. 2 by the Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm based in Pittsburgh, and the Human Rights Coalition, a national prison reform group. The report, titled No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette, found that a high rate of cancer among inmates at the SCI Fayette is linked to the nearby coal ash dump, and suggested the correctional facility be closed.

At SCI Fayette, 11 prisoners died of cancer from 2010 to 2013, six have been diagnosed with cancer and another eight reported undiagnosed tumors and lumps. In August 2013, the two human rights groups launched an ongoing investigation into the health impact of exposure to toxic coal waste on the prisoner population at SCI Fayette. The prison is surrounded by about 40 million tons of waste, two coal slurry ponds and millions of cubic yards of coal combustion waste, according to the report.

In the past 12 months, the investigation found:

• More than 81 percent of responding prisoners (61/75) reported respiratory, throat and sinus conditions.
• 68 percent (51/75) of responding prisoners experienced gastrointestinal problems, including heart burn, stomach pains, diarrhea, ulcers, ulcerative colitis, bloody stools and vomiting.
• 52 percent (39/75) reported experiencing adverse skin conditions, including painful rashes, hives, cysts and abscesses.
• 12 percent (9/75) of prisoners reported either being diagnosed with a thyroid disorder at SCI Fayette or having existing thyroid problems exacerbated after transfer to the prison.

The report stated that most SCI Fayette prisoners discussed symptoms and illnesses that did not emerge until they arrived at the prison. As such, the prison’s close proximity to a toxic coal waste site led the report authors to believe that “the declining health of prisoners at SCI Fayette is indeed caused by the toxic environment surrounding the prison; however, the inherent limitations of the survey do not establish this belief at an empirical level.”

While the report stated that ongoing investigation is necessary, it also said the investigation has already uncovered significant evidence proving the prison may be unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In addition to the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association’ health survey, the state Department of Corrections will be working with the state Department of Health to review inmate health records. Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that she does not know how long it will take to complete the review. The maximum-security, 2,000-inmate prison also has about 600 employees.

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