Coal Ash / Environmental Justice

America’s toxic prisons: The environmental injustices of mass incarceration

Dustin McDaniel of the Abolitionist Law Center has been campaigning to shut down SCI Fayette in Pennsylvania. He says the well-being of prisoners isn’t taken into consideration when agencies decide where to site prisons. (Credit: Nina Young)

SACRAMENTO, CA – “Matthew Morgenstern is convinced his Hodgkin’s lymphoma was caused by exposure to toxic coal ash from the massive dump right across the road from SCI Fayette, a maximum-security prison in LaBelle, Pennsylvania, where he is currently serving a 5- to 10-year sentence. ‘In 2010 and until I left in 2013, the water always had a brown tint to it. Not to mention the dust clouds that used to come off the dump trucks … which we all breathed in…. Every single day I would wake up and there would be a layer of dust on everything,’ he writes from inside the prison. When Morgenstern was sent back to SCI Fayette in 2016 after he violated parole, he found that the dust issue had abated a bit — work at the dump has been stalled for a year due to litigation — but the water still runs brownish and sometimes has ‘a funky smell.’ He says he knows that the environment in and around the prison is still ‘messed up’ and he’s concerned that his immune system, already weakened from fighting and overcoming cancer, won’t be able to withstand another onslaught of toxic exposure. ‘I myself have no doubt that if I’m kept here at Fayette, I will once again become sick,’ he writes.

…The plight of these prisoners points to a nationwide problem that’s inextricably linked to power imbalances within the US criminal legal system — a system in which prisoners are often out of sight and thus out of the public mind.

As a special investigation by Truthout and Earth Island Journal shows, the toxic impact of prisons extends far beyond any individual prison, or any specific region in the United States. Though some prisons provide particularly egregious examples, mass incarceration in the US impacts the health of prisoners, prison-adjacent communities and local ecosystems from coast to coast.”

— Candice Bernd, Zoe Loftus-Farren, and Maureen Nandini Mitra, Truthout

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