Prison: A Death Sentence by Poison

Federal Prison in Florence, Colorado. (AP Photo/Pueblo Chieftain, Chris McLean)

When the U.S. government builds a new prison, it has to generate an environmental impact statement: a report on how the prison facility will affect the surrounding environment. Stunningly, there is nothing to compel a study on how the surrounding environment will affect the prison’s population.

At The Outline, Michael Waters reports on how nearly a third of all federal U.S. prisons are located within three miles of Superfund sites, places where the land and water are so contaminated with industrial waste it’s considered dangerous for humans. Unless of course you’re a felon.

A week after Richard Mosley arrived as an inmate at Pennsylvania’s maximum-security SCI Fayette prison in 2008, he started getting sick. The air outside was so contaminated that his nose kept closing up. Then came the weight loss, followed by the gastrointestinal problems. Pretty soon, Mosley was relying on asthma masks to breathe. “I was going back and forth to medical trying to get some kind of relief or diagnosis,” he told The Outline. “I think I went maybe 35, 40 times.”

Meanwhile, Mosley started writing letters to local officials three days per week. “I was making a big stink,” he said. “If I was going to die there, I wasn’t going to die quietly.” He knew something was wrong. All around him, inmates were suffering. Skin rashes, gastrointestinal problems, and breathing issues were common across the prison. Everyone had a runny nose. The water quality was so abhorrent that guards brought bottled water for their onsite patrol dogs, according to Mosley. But the inmates still had to drink from the tap.

Only after he completed his sentence in 2012 and received a phone call from the Pennsylvania-based advocacy group Abolitionist Law Center did Mosley finally learn what was making him sick.

SCI Fayette was built in 2003 on the edge of a coal-ash dump for a nearby mine. Winds regularly sent that ash, which contained arsenic, lead, and mercury, into the air around the prison, and SCI Fayette inmates who inhaled it for a sustained period of time reported respiratory problems. Longer-term risks included thyroid cancer and lung disease.

According to Paige Williams, a cartographer who mapped out the phenomenon of toxic prisons as a student at Humboldt State University, 589 of the 1,821 federal and state prisons in the U.S. stand within three miles of a Superfund site — an Environmental Protection Agency designation denoting an area of land that is so contaminated it is dangerous to the public health — with 134 being within one mile of such a site.

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