by Maya Nojechowicz
As the coronavirus pandemic persists and spreads in prisons across the world, calls have grown nationally and in Pennsylvania for the release of high-risk incarcerated people, including those over sixty, all pregnant women, and those with serious medical conditions. Where the state should be acting quickly to save lives, its response has been lackluster and rife with delays. Nowhere is this more apparent than at SCI Fayette, a prison near the southwestern Pennsylvanian town of LaBelle that was built in 2003 on millions of tons of coal waste, next door to a coal ash dump.
The already toxic environment at SCI Fayette has become a potential hotbed for COVID-19, due to close living quarters, inadequate medical care, and a population with high rates of preexisting respiratory health issues as chronicled by the Abolitionist Law Center’s (ALC) 2014 report, No Escape. In the current reality of the pandemic, organizations like Human Rights Coalition (HRC) and Put People First PA (PPF PA) are making the case that everybody at Fayette is a high-risk individual. Building on the initial measures implemented by the state to begin the release of incarcerated people at an increased risk of perishing from COVID-19, Governor Wolf should move quickly toward the immediate evacuation and shutdown of SCI Fayette.
“Inmates, the guards, the staff, the residents, everyone is in harm’s way,” says Richard Mosley, coordinator of the Fayette Justice Health Project with Put People First PA and a former SCI Fayette inmate, “There is no other alternative but to get people off of the site.”
The toxic coal waste surrounding the prison has caused health issues for all in its vicinity for years. The drinking water at the prison is so polluted that prison staff sued for access to bottled water and won.
Prisoners are still forced to drink the polluted tap water.
Matt Canestrale Contracting (MCC) operated the toxic coal ash dumpsite in LaBelle until 2015. MCC received coal ash waste from coal producers like NRG and First Energy, and then disposed of it. Coal ash, which is so light it easily travels through the air, contains many toxins. According to the 2014 ALC report, this waste is likely the root of severe respiratory problems, pulmonary disease, high rates of cancer, and other health issues from which prisoners, prison staff, and townspeople in LaBelle have suffered for years.
The campaign to shut down SCI Fayette is not new. It formally started in 2013 as a partnership between HRC, ALC, the Center for Coalfield Justice, HOPE for LaBelle, and others. Lawsuits were filed to stop the dumping. In 2015 the campaign won and MCC stopped dumping toxic waste. It seemed like a victory.
However letters from prisoners at SCI Fayette describing the horrible conditions there did not stop and haven’t stopped since. The chronic coughing, lung infections, and other adverse health effects have not stopped. And this was before the coronavirus pandemic.
The brown tap water prisoners are forced to drink has not stopped. In July 2019, 15 men at SCI Fayette went on hunger strike to protest these conditions. Community organizers and families on the outside joined the strike in solidarity. Governor Tom Wolf and the Department of Corrections (DOC) have been made aware of the issues.
So far, they’ve chosen to ignore them despite the evidence of detrimental health effects and the public outcry.
Jackson Kusiak, organizer with HRC, says,
“Our understanding is that Fayette is used as the end of the line prison in PA. The fact that it’s built on a toxic dump is used as a threat for prisoners like you don’t want to be sent to Fayette because you’re being sent there to die.”
Now under threat of COVID-19, which attacks the respiratory system, prisoners and staff already suffering from weakened respiratory systems are at increased risk of contracting and spreading the disease. The public health crisis at SCI Fayette could turn deadly if COVID-19 were to spread in the prison.
The campaign led by HRC and PPF PA has three basic demands:
1. clean water for people in prison and in the town
2. adequate, full coverage health care for people in prison and people in the town
3. and shutting down SCI Fayette.
The first two demands are essential for the health and humanity of those incarcerated now, but shutting down SCI Fayette is the end goal. The prison should never have been built on millions of tons of coal waste to begin with.
Now that we are living in a global pandemic these demands are only more pressing.
HRC is demanding that all prisoners be evacuated from SCI Fayette immediately to avoid the risk of mass infection by COVID-19. Governor Wolf cannot afford to wait until there is blood on his hands to act.
Richard Mosley made a comparison between the conditions at SCI Fayette prior to the pandemic and living with the coronavirus as we are now,
“If a virus is causing you to change your behavior, what happens if the soil, air, and water around you is contaminated but you can’t leave or go anywhere? It’s a certain death.” This has always been life at SCI Fayette for the inmates. “I’m fighting for everyone but I can only speak from an inmate perspective. Inmates can’t get out of the way. They have no options.”
Through their campaign PPF PA and HRC want to bring light to the horrendous conditions at SCI Fayette and build pressure on this issue. The call to close the prison comes from prisoners, families, community organizers, townspeople, prison staff, and in the past has even come from a corrections officer at the prison. Governor Tom Wolf and the DOC must listen to the voice of the people who demand:
shut down SCI Fayette.
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