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

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


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.

Louisiana Activists Launch National Coalition to Demand Controlled Evacuations of Prisons During the Pandemic

By Suzy Subways

A national coalition led by the Working Group Against COVID-19 Death Chambers is forming to fight for controlled evacuations of incarcerated people—and it needs you. 

For the past year, loved ones of incarcerated people and other activists have pressured states to release large numbers of people from prisons in order to prevent massive loss of life. But very few people have been released, and as a result of prison conditions, one in five incarcerated people have gotten COVID-19. According to the UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, at least 2,368 incarcerated people have died in the U.S. from the virus so far. 

Belinda Parker-Brown

Belinda Parker-Brown, CEO and co-founder of Louisiana United International, Inc. (LUI), is working to stop this. Through LUI’s Enforce the 8th initiative, Parker-Brown aspires to shape a national narrative that maximizes our chances of adequately protecting U.S. detainees, inmates, and prisoners from exposure to COVID-19. She has assembled a Working Group Against COVID-19 Death Chambers. The lead manager of the working group, Dr. Zena Crenshaw-Logal, a prominent human rights defender, is currently reaching out to activists in other states to talk about which strategies are working and can be tried in new places without reinventing the wheel. 

Dr. Zena Crenshaw-Logal emphasizes that every state governor has the power to carry out a controlled evacuation of their state’s prisons—they don’t need the approval of the courts or legislature. She points out that holding people in prison at avoidable risk of COVID-19 is not just unconstitutional, it’s fairly considered a criminal offense—a crime of state battery, assault, and a crime against humanity. She proposes that governors and appropriate federal officials be held responsible for the suffering and death. 

But first, she proposes that advocates in each state mimic what LUI has done in Louisiana: Put together a panel of experts who can oversee a state-of-the-art decarceration formula for their state and establish where people can go when they are released from prison. “We want to make sure this is done right,” Crenshaw-Logal says, “by people who have been working on this issue in the community.” She explains that LUI has created a proposal that activists in other states can use as a template to argue for these government contracts in their state. 

The Working Group Against COVID-19 Death Chambers runs the Enforce the 8th initiative, which references the U.S. 8th Amendment prohibiting cruel and usual punishment. To get everyone coordinated and mutually supporting each other as much as possible, coalition participants will have access to free online training, central calendaring, and social networking. In this coalition, activists from different states can share strategies for successfully winning reductions to prison populations. 

Part of the challenge will be to shape the national narrative, Parker-Brown says, as major media have not been covering this issue, let alone covering it in a way that lays the groundwork for the actions that are needed in order to save lives. 

“The concept of governors using their evacuation powers is not part of the national narrative,” she says. “Everyone who’s out there fighting should make this part of their platform. If we don’t say it, the major media will dictate the narrative.”

Aging Black Liberation Political Prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz, Bedridden with COVID-19 and Cancer, Shows Us Why PA Must #FreeEmAll

by Suzy Subways

As COVID-19 surges through the state and tears through its prisons, loved ones of incarcerated people are driving to Harrisburg today, calling for Gov. Tom Wolf to use his reprieve power to immediately release all elderly and medically vulnerable people in prison. Loved ones are also asking the Department of Corrections to require prison staff to wear face masks and be tested for COVID-19. As part of a national caravan for health and social justice, the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign worked with local anti-prison groups like the Human Rights Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) to center the survival of people in prison on this day. The car caravan will circle the state capitol and proceed to the governor’s mansion.

Amid the horror that is the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections right now, Black liberation movement political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz may be one of the best examples of how that horror is playing out for elderly prisoners and their families. Maroon is 77 years old and has been fighting stage 4 colon cancer for over a year. After testing positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 11, Maroon was held in a gymnasium with 29 other men—and only one toilet to share between them. Meanwhile, he has had blood in his stool, and his urgent surgery for the cancer is now being denied. 

Continue reading “Aging Black Liberation Political Prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz, Bedridden with COVID-19 and Cancer, Shows Us Why PA Must #FreeEmAll”

Letter from Josh O’Connor: solitary confinement, food access, and being Native in prison

The following is excerpted from a letter sent to us a Prison Health News reader, published with his permission.

My name is Josh O’Connor.  I’m 20 years old and serving a 22 yr sentence for a crime I committed at 17 years old.  I’m Native American and a vegan. 

I’m in solitary for a fight I got into and have been here for 4 months and was told I would be forced to stay in solitary confinement for the next 6-8 months.    I fear the mental/physical detrimental effects being in solitary confinement for so long and how I may suffer permanent health effects.   I have met many inmates who have spent years – 7, 10, and even up to 20 in solitary confinement and you can easily see the adverse/detrimental deterioration of their health.  Many have had insufficient brain activity to communicate with others not to mention get a job, and you can see many don’t get enough nutrients, because of the lack of sun/vitamins, which makes us very sick.  I hope something will be done soon regarding limiting or abolishing solitary confinement.  

Continue reading “Letter from Josh O’Connor: solitary confinement, food access, and being Native in prison”

How to Obtain/Secure a Medical Release of Information for an Incarcerated Individual in PA State Prison

By Elaine Selan, RN, MSN

Our current health crisis is one that impacts each of us in different ways; it brings to light so many questions and concerns.  Often as nurse who is also a human rights activist, I am contacted by family members asking how one can obtain medical information about a loved one who is incarcerated.  Typically, this need arrives when the loved one becomes ill.  However, getting a Release of Information [ROI] when your loved one is not ill will make it easier to get information if the need occurs.

The process has many steps; and, even if followed correctly, the DOC’s health services may present obstacles that need to be addressed.  Determination is crucial!!! 

Continue reading “How to Obtain/Secure a Medical Release of Information for an Incarcerated Individual in PA State Prison”

When There’s a Pandemic and Your Loved One Is in Prison

Ideas for support and advocacy during the COVID-19 crisis 

By Evelyne Kane and Suzy Subways

It’s challenging enough for loved ones of people in prison: paying for expensive phone calls, trying to advocate for your loved one’s health, keeping your head up through it all. And now we have to deal with this new virus. Here are what we hope will be some helpful ideas and suggestions, which we’ve gathered from people in prison, their loved ones on the outside, and other activists:

Coronavirus Info to Share with Your Loved One in Prison:

COVID-19 is the name for the new disease spread by the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 is very easy to spread from person to person, and transmission can happen in a number of ways, including:

  • From close contact with another person who has the virus (being within 6 feet of them)
  • Through contaminated surfaces or objects (the virus can live on many surfaces for hours or even days)
  • Through contaminated particles in the air (for instance, when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes)

Continue reading “When There’s a Pandemic and Your Loved One Is in Prison”

“My Heart Is Broken in Pieces”: Family Grieves Son Lost to Excessive Force from Corrections Officers

By Evelyne Kane

Online exclusive for Prison Health News

A few days before Christmas, Shaleda and Ervin Busbee sit together in their cozy and well-kept rowhouse in West Philadelphia. From the living room, a lighted Christmas tree ringed with gifts glows softly. Despite the festivity of the season, the Busbees’ spirits are heavy this year as they grieve the loss of their son, Tyrone Briggs, who was killed on November 11, 2019 while incarcerated at Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution-Mahanoy. His family and legal team allege that his death was caused by excessive use of pepper spray by Mahanoy staff.

Continue reading ““My Heart Is Broken in Pieces”: Family Grieves Son Lost to Excessive Force from Corrections Officers”

Healthy Eating: Non-Diet Hacks and Tips

By Leo Cardez

From PHN Issue 41, Winter 2020

At Prison Health News, we try to avoid talking about diets, in part to be accepting of all body types, and also because changing eating patterns is more healthy than dieting. I’m going to focus on healthy eating tips you can use in almost any prison. Some might work for you, and others might work for other readers, so don’t feel like you need to try them all.

  1. Water is your friend. Drink a cup of water before you walk to chow, another during your meal, and another after. Doing this can fill you up, help with digestion, and help clean your teeth.
  2. Slow down. Eat mindfully. Focus and enjoy the meal. Chew your food at least five times before swallowing. Try eating vegetables and protein first off your tray.
  3. It may help to keep a food journal and write down everything you eat, as long as this doesn’t increase your stress. The idea is that being more aware of everything you’re eating will help you get more control over what you are eating.
  4. Here’s another tip that may work well for some of us but not for others: Create a daily meal and snack schedule to plan what you will eat. Stick to it.
  5. Find a healthy eating buddy to hold each other accountable and for support and encouragement.
  6. Try to eat the opposite of traditional meal portions throughout the day. Have a large breakfast, reasonable lunch, and smaller dinner.
  7. Prepare your cell-made snacks and meals in advance. For example, if you plan to have a snack or meal later that day, set them aside in the morning.
  8. Some people find it helpful to eat all their meals in an 8-to-10-hour window, not eating the other 14 to 16 hours each day. This is often referred to as intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting, or limiting your eating to certain windows, draws on 20 years of medical research and literature, encompassing a large number of studies, and has been proven to be safe, effective, and highly beneficial. It’s been associated with longer life span, weight loss, maintaining a healthy weight, and may help prevent cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.
  9. Create small daily goals, and start the day with personal affirmations. For example, “Today, just today, I won’t eat any bread or processed sugar.” Review this every morning and mix it up.
Continue reading “Healthy Eating: Non-Diet Hacks and Tips”

Legal Advocates Support Philadelphia Family Seeking Justice for Son Allegedly Killed by Prison Guards

By Evelyne Kane

Online exclusive for Prison Health News

On November 11, 2019, Tyrone Briggs died at the age of 29 while incarcerated at State Correctional Institution Mahanoy, a 1,000-cell, all-male, medium-security correctional facility located in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Shortly after, 13 of Mahanoy’s medical and security staff were suspended, pending the outcome of an investigation into Briggs’ death. In a press release, Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary John Wetzel promised that “whatever the outcome of this case, we are going to be as transparent as possible, and the DOC will take whatever remedial measures deemed to be necessary.” Despite this promise, additional details about the cause of Briggs’ death have been slow to follow. Reports from other individuals incarcerated at Mahanoy, including a podcast from Mumia Abu-Jamal, have attributed Briggs’ death to the excessive use of oleoresin capsicum (OC), or “pepper spray.” In accounts from witnesses inside Mahanoy, it is believed that guards responded to an altercation between Briggs and another inmate by spraying the two men with OC. They subsequently tackled Briggs to the ground, held him down, and continued to OC-spray him. Briggs was heard to say, “I can’t breathe,” several times during the incident, and it is believed that these were his last words. Continue reading “Legal Advocates Support Philadelphia Family Seeking Justice for Son Allegedly Killed by Prison Guards”