Survivors of SCI Fayette’s Toxic Water and Coal Ash Speak Out

A photo taken from above shows the prison SCI Fayette and mounds of toxic coal ash next to it.

Prison Health News is honored to share these testimonies from inside State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette, one of Pennsylvania’s 24 prisons. While many prisons force people to live in environmentally toxic and unsafe conditions, the case of SCI Fayette is shockingly severe. We hope these testimonies encourage everyone reading this to get involved in the fight to shut down SCI Fayette. For more info, please check out Abolitionist Law Center’s report, No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at SCI Fayette. To get involved in the fight to finally shut this prison down, reach out to the Human Rights Coalition at salenacoca (at) gmail (dot) com or write to Human Rights Coalition, Attention: Toxic Prisons Committee, PO Box 34580, Philadelphia, PA 19101.

Tainted Water at SCI Fayette

By BP

I spent just over ten years at SCI Fayette, which is located in the town of La Belle, Pennsylvania, prior to being released on parole. When I first got to Fayette, shortly after stepping off the bus shackled by hands, feet and to another person, I was informed of there being several problems at Fayette. One of those was that the prison has a huge problem with the water because the prison had been built on a toxic waste site. Obviously, I was shocked and nervous about the prospect of becoming sick and possibly developing some form of deadly cancer on top of already being more than six hours away from anybody who cares about me and not yet realizing what the staff and social situation would be there. So I asked, “What was this site before being a prison?” The answer came back, “Coal ash.”

“[We] watched powerlessly as he deteriorated within three months from some kind of advanced stomach cancer … he died.”

—BP, recently released from SCI Fayette

I had not been an environmentalist or stayed on top of various specific strains of cancers and illnesses possible from exposure to toxic water due to coal ash. But it was not only cancers which afflicted people—there are skin problems and deeper-tissue complications as well. One young man whom I met upon first getting settled into Fayette (I’ll call him Josh) had a severe foot problem. In fact, he had a permanent limp. So, one day, I asked him what happened to him. Josh told me he developed some kind of infection from going into the shower and stepping down onto the shower floor without any flip-flops or sandals on. The medical staff barely responded to his requests for assistance, and over the course of a few months, he had developed a serious problem with his foot. His foot had become permanently damaged.

One man who had been at Fayette since it opened, who was deeply involved in the Christian church there, began to have stomach pains—but as many men do, he didn’t have it checked immediately. In a short time period, he became overcome with pain, and the medical staff were, as usual, reluctant to provide him with the care he needed. Everyone on the block and those across the jail watched powerlessly as he deteriorated within three months from some kind of advanced stomach cancer which was not properly tended to by the prison staff. We were stunned, shocked and in utter disbelief over the rapid rate of this man’s deterioration. Further, I, along with several others, felt the hopeless emptiness of being unable to help or alleviate a friend’s pain.  

Two adults and a child march during a protest, with banners reading "Fight Toxic Prisons" and "End Prison Slavery Now."
Protesters march to NRG Energy Center, which is responsible for the coal ash at SCI Fayette, in Pittsburgh, PA in June, 2018. Photo by Jordan E. Mazurek, Fight Toxic Prisons.

Meanwhile, his family, as per policy, was often kept in the dark about his hospital visits. Someone else on the unit had to contact his family to let them know he was hospitalized. The night that he died, he had been wrongly released from hospital and sent back to the prison. Upon arriving back, he had begun exhibiting audible indications of severe discomfort and pain. The story goes that after having been left to lay in the prison medical area for a time, an ambulance was called, and during transport, he died. Yes, he had been subjected to drinking and using the toxic water at Fayette since it opened in September 2003.

Across my years at Fayette, I had met many men who developed rashes, skin discoloration, scars, patches and irritations from the shower and sink water. During my time there, I suffered several bouts of intense itches on my legs. Also, the skin around the outside of my face had become patchy and discolored, resulting from the water there.  

“There only appears to be one surefire way to stop the horrors of illness, death and skin problems that come from people being exposed to the water there at Fayette, and that is to have that facility shut down.”

—BP, recently released from SCI Fayette

It had been well known that a supply of water had been sent to the prison to be distributed to the inmates to drink. Instead of that happening, it was given to the staff.  

I am a first-person example and witness of the dangers associated with the toxic water at Fayette. Because of the compound being built over a waste site, a dump site, a toxic landfill of coal ash—and still having thousands of tons of coal ash beneath it—the water cannot be purified or made free of the dangerous contaminants it carries. There only appears to be one surefire way to stop the horrors of illness, death and skin problems that come from people being exposed to the water there at Fayette, and that is to have that facility shut down.        

Water, Toxic Coal Ash, and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections 

By Kenneth Beaver

The ethnic cleansing of those prisoners held in custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for years means they are slowly dying from a death sentence not imposed on them from the court system. This is a federal and state issue, which went into effect some 20 years ago that was decided under the “Law and Order—Get Tough on Crime” mentality under our past and present elected officials. Politicians see a cheaper and more baleful way, by building maximum security institutions on toxic land.

In 2003, the Pennsylvania Department of Corruption had SCI-Fayette built, knowing damn well it was on the edge of a coal ash dump for a nearby coal mine. Now, I was mysteriously transferred here to the Plantation of SCI-Fayette from SCI-Dallas under the guise of an administrative transfer only to silence me from exposing the fraud, embezzlement, stealing, and misappropriation of the Pennsylvania state citizen’s tax dollars by the DOC. 

“Within just one year, I feel a constant fatigue and a shortness of breath.”

—Kenneth Beaver, incarcerated at SCI Fayette

I believe that after 12 years of SCI Fayette’s settlement and saturation in this coal ash (which contains arsenic, lead, and mercury, on top of other things the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] lists as toxic pollutants), I was sentenced to a slow death imposed on me by the executive branch of the Department of Corrections to silence me. I wrote a letter dated Monday, August 31, 2015 to the Pennsylvania Auditor General, Mr. Eugene A. DePasquale—and that letter was intercepted, seized, and three days later I was transferred to SCI-Fayette for non-disciplinary reasoning that cited I had “too many complaints from other inmates.” 

Just imagine being in a controlled environment with strong winds containing toxic pollutants that you are subjected to inhale all day every day for years. During this pandemic, we’re stuck in these sarcophaguses 23 hours a day. If you could just see the coal ash dust that these cells accumulate, you would be overburdened. 

The filters have NEVER been changed except for filters where the corrections officers congregate. The maintenance department is fixing the books to make it look like they are spending thousands of dollars on new filters, when in reality, all they are doing is using inmate labor to wash and rinse them. For the past five years, I have never seen the vents cleaned in the five housing units I have lived in. There has to be an independent body to look into the fraud, corruption, and mistreatment of those in their custody. 

The effect I am experiencing with the water is that I have never had a skin problem until I arrived on this Plantation. Within just one year, I feel a constant fatigue and a shortness of breath. I have signed up for sick call several times in the past, and after those encounters you come to realize that the medical department is contracted out to a private corporation that is in the business of making money. They do not provide adequate medical care. How many prisoners have died of cancer on all of the SCI Plantations? There is a known fact that all of the PA DOC’s doctors, physician’s assistants, and nurses are instructed not to tell an inmate that he is terminally ill with cancer until it is untreatable. I personally do not sign up for sick calls anymore because after so many visits, you become mentally exhausted having to explain yourself to someone who doesn’t give a damn.The sad part is that this administration has these inmates gripped in fear of speaking out, filing grievances, and complaining about the unjust treatment of being oppressed and repressed. What can be done?

A protest march crosses a bridge, carrying a banner that reads, "Fight Toxic Prisons."
Protesters march to NRG Energy Center, which is responsible for the coal ash at SCI Fayette, in Pittsburgh, PA in June, 2018. Photo by Jordan E. Mazurek, Fight Toxic Prisons.

Those on the outside must demand that our elected officials and the PA Department of Corruption stop the slow death of these fathers, sons, brothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters. Make SCI-Fayette give us the bottled water that guards receive (located in the warehouse) because of the polluted water.

The drinking water here is a cancer-causing elixir. In 2013, the Citizens Coal Council took samples at nearby streams, wells, and drainage pipes, finding levels of dissolved iron over 60 times greater than the Pennsylvania standard, more than 5 times the Pennsylvania standard for manganese, and 10 times the standard for sulfate. Later tests showed levels exceeding standards for thallium, arsenic, cobalt, boron, aluminum, total dissolved solids, and both excessively high and low pH levels. 

The Abolitionist Law Center and Human Rights Coalition released a report in 2014, stating, “Eleven prisoners died from cancer [out of 17 total deaths] at SCI Fayette between January of 2010 and December of 2013.” One of every four deaths in the United States is due to cancer, so why are two-thirds of the deaths at Fayette due to cancer? Physicians for Social Responsibility reports that components of coal ash can cause cancer, as well as chronic skin disorders, problems with liver and kidney functioning, asthma attacks and respiratory ailments. 

The Clean Water Act of 1972 is no longer in effect because the toxic drinking water created by these unlawful discharges is causing “slow kill” benefits for Correct Care Solutions [the for-profit company in charge of health care at SCI Fayette], big pharmaceutical companies, and health insurance industries controlled by the government. 

Sicknesses and illnesses are caused by the toxic drinking water that the state and the PA DOC provides for those in their custody—and they tested the water and found nothing wrong? If you are in a prison right now where you believe your water is toxic, do the research and learn for yourself. You can protest buying from the commissary or go on hunger strike with fellow inmates. Spread this information and fight alongside those who have been wrongfully sentenced to chronic illnesses. 

If I, Kenneth Beaver, can’t get help from the public at large, the PA DOC will continue doing what they know they can get away with. I assure you no staff here is drinking the water, so why should we have to? 

Prison Health News would like to thank Human Rights Coalition for connecting us with BP and Kenneth Beaver so these articles could be shared with the public.

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