PHILLY’S JAILS ARE, LITERALLY, MAKING PEOPLE SICK
The need for a closer look into the toxic conditions plaguing city and regional jails
By David A. Love | ecoWURD.com Contributor | Feature
Seventeen years passed since Dwayne Simms, 51, was locked up in a jail.
Last year, he found himself locked up again, in Philadelphia’s Detention Center on State Road for about five weeks. Of course, anyone would expect a bad experience – but, not as bad as this one. “It was worse than what I remember it to be,” he told ecoWURD. “Some of the meals they’re giving, I was 320 pounds, was for a healthy 6-year-old. They would feed us at 8 o’clock, 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, a slice of bologna with potatoes and high school vegetables. I’m not saying it was supposed to be five-star but it wasn’t good.”
But what stood out for Simms were the mice. “These mice come at night whether you’re asleep or not. How do mice get to the top bunk? Mice hide from humans. These mice they ain’t tryin’ to hear that. They were out and they were out in force,” Simms added. “I tried to ask about it, what’s going on and it was pretty much ‘Shut up and take it.’”
Simms believes people would be surprised to hear about the conditions behind bars. “I think that the inhumane part would be surprising, because even though they are in jail for crimes they committed or didn’t commit, they want people to be treated humanely. Some people just don’t give a f*ck.”
“I think that if the majority of people with political power were the brothers and sisters of the people who are serving time, our prisons would look very different,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
The Prison Society, founded in 1787, has worked to ensure humane prison conditions and prison policy reform for prisons in Philadelphia and around Pennsylvania. The organization shines light on what takes place in those jails and prisons, and seeks transparency on what people are experiencing on the inside. “Written into Pennsylvania law is the belief that citizens should know what is happening to our fellow citizens behind bars. We are one of the few states that provides that,” Shubik-Richards explains. “There are 79,000 people living behind bars on any given day in this Commonwealth. The low estimate is about $4 billion dollars spent annually. It is a decent portion of our population and they are completely shielded,” she added.
Shubik-Richards told ecoWURD that there are worsening environmental and physical conditions across the six Philadelphia county prisons, the four prisons in the five-county Philadelphia suburbs, and 24 state prisons across the Commonwealth. More than 40 percent of the inmates are from southeastern Pennsylvania. “The reason why the crumbling facilities exist is because of a lack of willingness to invest. For example, in Fayette County they want to build a new prison they simply don’t have the money to,” she said of the Fayette County Prison (FCP), a 19th century facility facing a lawsuit for unconstitutional living conditions, environmental problems, overcrowding and disrepair.
John Hargreaves, a volunteer Director for the Prison Society also tells ecoWURD, during a broadcast of Reality Check on WURD, that the food is something else no one is paying attention to. “Food in PA prisons is just not good, it is as cheaply as they can provide it. Restricted housing units also create food issues, missed meals or being served what’s called ‘loafs’ – many times it’s just different kinds of foods, meats, peas, rice, or whatever just mashed up into loaves. That leads to all sorts of health issues, and inmates age faster.”
OUT OF SITE, OUT OF MIND
Often out of sight and out of mind, incarcerated people routinely face environmental challenges. Forced to live in captivity, prisoners find themselves exposed to some of the most dangerous, toxic and inhumane environmental conditions in the country – from violations of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to international human rights standards. These conditions are as prevalent in the United States, in places such as Philadelphia, as they are anywhere else in the world.
And they compromise the health and well-being of not only citizens behind bars for long periods of time, but also those who are awaiting trial or sentencing.
“It’s a burdensome task surviving toxic prisons where the effect of the environment on a person’s spirit is like acid dripping on an individual’s flesh,” wrote Clinton “Nkechi” Walker, a prisoner at SCI Phoenix in Pennsylvania. “Policies and practices are constructed and saturated with inhumane substances that amplify toxicity. No inhabitant is unscathed.”
The environmental problems in these facilities amount to a form of punishment above and beyond actual incarceration. This reality became painfully obvious in Brooklyn, New York, where hundreds of inmates in the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal jail, recently suffered without heat and electricity for a week.
But, while those detainees benefited from public protests and viral social media videos, most people warehoused in other facilities under trying circumstances remain invisible.
Take Philadelphia as a prime example. The poor state of correctional institutions was brought into focus with the closing of the House of Correction, the city’s oldest jail built on State Road in 1874 then razed and rebuilt in 1927. Slated for full closing by next year, the House of Correction, now emptied of its inmate population, was called a dungeon. Complaints piled up: mold, mice and roaches, leaky pipes, collapsed ceilings and freezing cold winters, along with no sprinklers, air conditioning or automated locks.
Conditions were so bad that even the guards wanted the facility shut down.
Fast forward and the good news is that the decaying, dilapidated facility no longer houses people. And in the midst of Philadelphia’s reduced prison population, the city received $3.5 million from the MacArthur Foundation to downsize its jails, with a goal of cutting the number of inmates by one third and diverting nonviolent offenders. Mayor Jim Kenney claims the savings from that closure will be diverted to the city’s communities and schools.
For years, overcrowding was a pressing problem in Philadelphia prisons, with conditions that violated the Constitution and exacerbated sanitary problems, the spread of disease and violence. Substantially reducing its prison population will allow Philadelphia to move beyond its reputation as the “most incarcerated big city in America.”
However, the bad news is that there are facilities across Philly and the rest of the Commonwealth that still have serious environmental problems. They create harmful living conditions and perpetuate toxic, inhumane policies deserving more scrutiny and outcry.
“So they closed down the House of Correction, which was in the worst shape, and they reduced the population, which we’re happy about,” said Michael Bailey, a staff attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), a nonprofit prisoner’s rights legal organization representing indigent incarcerated and institutionalized people. “But then they moved people over to the Detention Center, an old facility that’s not in great shape.” The Detention Center is a low-end security facility that houses pretrial detainees, typically for minor drug offenses, and parole violation.
Bailey told ecoWURD that his office receives constant complaints from inmates about vermin, birds and mold.
IT’S JUST NOT TALKED ABOUT
In a federal class-action suit (pdf) filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and PILP, Fayette County prisoners complain of “cruel and inhumane conditions” at FCP, including health and safety risks from the sanitation, sewage, plumbing and ventilation systems. Inmates describe “foul smells of feces and stale air” permeate the prison.
They often lack access to running water for bathing, drinking and flushing toilets, suffer from overcrowding and extreme temperatures, and constantly complain that rats, mice and cockroaches are infested throughout the prison, including the kitchen. “Sewage is routinely discharged into Plaintiffs’ cells, where they sleep and eat. Because Plaintiffs are often ‘locked in’ to their cells for seventeen to eighteen hours a day, they cannot escape the refuse,” reads the complaint from their lawsuit. “Water leaks have caused extensive damage to light fixtures, walls, ceilings, floors, and other areas, creating safety hazards. Medical supplies must be kept behind a thin wooden wall in an attempt to protect against the constantly leaking pipes. Because of the leaks, mold accumulates in the limited shower areas and in Plaintiffs’ cells. Beyond the mold, the showers are often unusable because of water and sewage backups.”
Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel would not respond to repeated requests from ecoWURD to comment on the issue of prison environmental conditions. However, at an April State Department of Environmental Protection Environmental Justice roundtable in the Overbrook section of Phillly, State Senator Vincent Hughes raised the issue. “Something else that’s not talked about and that I’m very interested in is the toxicity of the state prison system,” said Hughes. “Secretary Wetzel has talked about that with me and has indicated he is working on that as we speak.”
But it’s unclear if he really is. The Prison Society still receives many complaints from the Detention Center and the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC) located on State Road. Most include medical issues and concerns of abuse from corrections officers. The Detention Center, in particular, is notorious among inmates for freezing temperatures in the winter, along with no blankets, and no air conditioning in the sweltering summer heat. “The Detention Center is more problematic than the House of Correction,” says Shubik-Richards.
“From a building facility perspective it’s not the case, but from the perspective of livability, it’s worse,” explains Shubik-Richards.
BUILDING PRISONS ON HAZARDOUS SITES
Bad enough that prisons themselves are toxic places, but even worse that they are built on land that’s already damaged or considered dangerous. It’s a pattern similar to how poor and Black communities are disproportionately exposed to poisonous, health-compromising substances in the air, water and land, their health compromised in the process.
“Fayette is the one that stands out in my mind. Somehow, they thought it was a good idea to build next to a coal ash waste facility,” Michael Bailey of PILP said of the state prison, SCI Fayette, which opened in 2003 in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and whose inmates manufacture the state’s license plates.
“Even the guards don’t drink the water at Fayette,” he added – reflecting accounts of brown-tinted and smelly water there – also pointing to water quality issues in prisons such as Coal Township, Mahanoy and Frackville. “I think they tend to build facilities in communities that used to be coal towns. Their fathers used to be coal miners,” he added, noting concerns that the chemicals used to extinguish fires have leeched into the water. “They move the guys around often when they begin to present symptoms related to coal ash,” Bailey noted. “It would take a lot of effort to keep track of all these guys.”
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections inmate locator database, 60 percent of the SCI Fayette prison population of 2,087 is Black or Latino (with 53 percent being Black), and nearly one quarter of prisoners are from Philadelphia, nearly all people of color (including 80 percent Black). Although they do not work in the coal mining industry, a 2015 report from VICE and a 2016 report from Al Jazeera found that the people housed in FCI Fayette have exhibited the symptoms of diseases associated with coal miners, which are rare among the general population.
An investigation from the Abolitionist Law Center found that over 81 percent of SCI Fayette inmates who responded experienced throat, sinus and respiratory issues, such as severe coughing, sinus infections, tumors, shortness of breath and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In addition, 68 percent of prisoners had gastrointestinal conditions, such as bloody stools, vomiting, ulcers and stomach pains, while 52 percent reported skin disorders, and 12 percent had a thyroid disorder. Further, eleven prisoners reportedly died of cancer, and an additional six were diagnosed with cancer, along with eight that had undiagnosed tumors.
It is worth noting that residents of La Belle, who had complained of breathing difficulties as a result of the coal ash that accumulates in the air via the coal-ash dump site, had been suffering from disturbingly high rates of kidney disease, cancer and abnormal skin conditions. High air pollution-related deaths, and heart disease mortality rates, are 26 percent higher than the national average.
Coal ash is highly toxic, containing such hazardous elements as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium. The state knew this, yet built the prison anyway, showing little regard for the ill prisoners – and prison guards – who have developed kidney cancer and other rare diseases due to coal pollutant exposure. Further endangering Fayette inmates above and beyond the coal ash, a new nearby coal terminal along the river handles millions of tons of coal each year, and the prison burns coal for its power—the dirtiest fossil fuel often mischaracterized as a “clean” energy source by industry lobbyists.
This all happens at the prison with the third highest death rate in Pennsylvania.
“There are so many examples of prisons built on or near hazardous sites all across the country, and the trend appears to be continuing with the BOP’s (Federal Bureau of Prison’s) plan to build USP Letcher on a former coal strip mine site in East Kentucky,” Panagioti Tsolkas, a co-founder of the Prison Ecology Project, told ecoWURD.
Of the nearly 600 prisons nationwide that are built within three miles of a toxic Superfund site, more than 100 of these are within a mile of the hazardous location, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. This reality gives credence to the idea that the prison industry cares little-to-nothing about where these prisons are built, highlighting the environmental justice implications of the prison-industrial-complex and the need for the emerging prison ecology movement.
SCI Graterford in Pennsylvania, for example, once the state’s largest maximum security prison which operated from 1929 until last year, was once cited by the EPA for violations of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Those violations included “… discharging ammonia nitrogen above the permitted limit into a Perkiomen Creek tributary, improperly storing and managing hazardous waste, and failing to develop a spill prevention plan for oil tanks.”
Graterford’s water system tested positive for chromium-6, a poison that causes liver damage, cancer and reproductive issues and was the subject of the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich.”
Replacing Graterford was SCI Phoenix, built on the Graterford grounds.
“Graterford was a very old facility and there was asbestos and mold and other things, but Phoenix is a high tech dungeon, and the newer facilities may not have as many environmental issues,” Bailey said, noting – as if to suggest a tradeoff – the older facilities have more freedom and social interaction, while “Phoenix seems very rigid and controlled.”
Still, when it comes to prisons, new may not necessarily mean better.
“The new restrictive facilities, most of which were built in the 1990s and the 2000s, were part of a fad for everything to be secure. It was part of a culture around security,” Shubik-Richards of the Prison Society says, arguing that the Department of Corrections would have designed Phoenix differently today. The whole idea of Eastern State, she explains, was that prisoners would be in a modern hygienic environment, perhaps one better than the communities they live in.
“You would rather have rats and a lack of heat than not being able to leave your cell or only talking to your family once or twice a month, or to not have freedom of movement and conversation,” adds Shubik-Richards. That’s become a trade-off with consequences.