Pennsylvania Inmates, Town, Poisoned by Coal Waste

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

In 2003, the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute (SCI) at Fayette was opened next to a toxic waste dump. A little more than a decade later, the Abolitionist Law Center found that most of SCI Fayette’s prisoners suffer from some combination of breathing-related, gastrointestinal, and skin diseases, including rare cancers that have led to 11 deaths. The illnesses are almost certainly caused by the coal waste dump next door, where the by-products of coal-fired power plants are stored in open-air “mountains.” The nearby town of La Belle is reporting similar health problems.

Prisons are often built near brownfield sites — areas that are intensely polluted — but the SCI Fayette case is especially dramatic. Not only are inmates getting sick, but they also report abuse and neglect by the penitentiary’s medical staff. On the grounds that “they’re faking it,” the medical center has denied treatment, medicine, and in one case water to people that are ill to the point of immobility. The Abolitionist Law Center has been advocating on behalf of the prisoners since 2013. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections denied any pollution claims in 2015 via a highly criticized environmental assessment, and hasn’t commented since. Matt Canestrale Contracting, the dump operator, hasn’t publicly commented for fear of legal action.

As of March 21st, 2016, no corporate news service has addressed the story. The local Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has written a handful of articles since 2003, but the only national services to address the conditions at SCI Fayette are the soon-to-close Al Jazeera America, a foreign-run news service, and Vice Magazine a year earlier in May 2015. While exceptional sources of reporting, neither are read by a mainstream audience and neither service published more than one article on the story. Both institutions regard Fayette as an extraordinary but not unimaginable tragedy of the American penal system.


Raven Rakia, “Coal Ash May Be Making Pennsylvania Inmates Sick, and Now They’re Fighting to Shut Their Prison Down”. Vice. May 5, 2015.

Kevin Williams, “‘Poisonous lands’: Pennsylvania prison built next to toxic dump”. Al Jazeera America. February 25, 2016.

Student Researcher: J. Halsey Payne (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Robert C. Williams (University of Vermont)