Polluted Prisons: When the building you live in is bad for your health

by Suzy Subways

From PHN Issue 32, Spring 2017

Flint, Michigan residents and Native Americans at Standing Rock, North Dakota are demanding that their drinking water be protected from chemical poisons. The world has begun to hear their words: “Water is Life.” People in prison are speaking up too.

Countless prisons and jails in the United States have contaminated water, but that’s not the only problem. Many prisons were built under unsafe conditions and can cause health problems for people held in them. Like in Flint and Standing Rock, these health risks most often affect Black and Native American people, other people of color, and white people from poor communities.

Some prisons are contaminated with mold. Others were built near uranium processing facilities where the water and air contain radioactive waste. And some prisons do not have evacuation plans even though they are located near nuclear power plants or in danger areas for natural disasters such as flooding.

Coal ash

SCI Fayette in Pennsylvania was built on a massive dump of coal waste. People incarcerated there have reported chronic sore throats, extreme throat swelling, shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, vision problems, stomach pain, and tumors. Many have been diagnosed with cancer or thyroid disorders.

According to a report by the Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition, “Situating a prison in the midst of a massive toxic coal waste dump may be impermissible under the Constitution if it is shown that prisoners face a substantial risk of serious harm caused by exposure to pollutants from the dump.”

Valley fever

In California, Arizona and throughout the Southwest, people in prison are more vulnerable to Valley Fever than those outside prison. Valley Fever is caused by a fungus that lives in dry soil and is transmitted through the air. People of African, Filipino and Pacific Islander descent are at much higher risk of developing a severe form of the disease, which can be fatal.

Health officials recommend ventilators, door seals, and landscaping or concrete around the prisons to keep dust in the ground. Prisons should transfer out people who are at higher risk. Those imprisoned in affected areas should be tested for Valley Fever and given treatment if they have it.

Gas and spray

Tear gas and pepper spray are being used against people in prison more often in recent years. If you’re exposed to CS tear gas, try this if possible:

  • Use the inside of your coat or shirt to protect your mouth and nose
  • Blow your nose, rinse your mouth, cough and spit. Try not to swallow.
  • Put your face under the tap and rinse your eyes with cold water, from the inner corner to the outer corner, making sure your hands don’t touch your eyes and the water doesn’t run off onto your skin or clothes
  • Shower in cold water—not hot water—and change your clothes

If pepper spray gets in your eyes, try to flush your eyes with water as soon as you can. Experts disagree about what to do next, but if you have access to any of these, they might help:

  • Saline solution for the eyes
  • Whole milk to stop the burning
  • 3 parts cold water, 1 part detergent (the brand Dawn is best) to rinse the oils off
  • 1 part water, 1 part Maalox (an aluminum- or magnesium hydroxide-based antacid, not a simethicone-based antacid)

Your facility’s “use of force” guidelines can let you know whether it might help to file a grievance. The War Resisters League is pressuring the Department of Justice to end the use of tear gas and pepper spray in prisons. If you have a story to share, write to them at

War Resisters League
168 Canal St, Suite 600
New York, NY 10013

Lobbying for Protections

The job of the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protect the public’s health from pollution. But the EPA ignores 2.4 million people simply because they are in prison. The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons and the Prison Ecology Project have brought together activists across the country to pressure the EPA to fix this. It will be a tough battle under incoming president Trump, who wants to take away environmental regulations. You can write to the EPA to ask them to investigate and stop environmentally unsafe conditions in prison:

Office of Environmental Justice
Environmental Protection Agency [Mail Code 2201A]
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20460

One small victory at a time

In Texas, people incarcerated at the Wallace Pack Unit filed a lawsuit in 2014 because of unsafe drinking water and extreme heat. Finally, on June 21, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Keith Ellison ordered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide drinking water without unsafe levels of arsenic, a deadly poison that can cause cancer, skin lesions, diabetes and heart disease.

If you are housed in a facility where the water, air or other conditions threaten your health, you can write to the following address to report it. They may or may not be able to help you, but they can spread the word about the problem:

Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons
c/o Civic Media Center
433 South Main Street
Gainesville, FL 32601

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