Toxic punishment: U.S. prisons built on radioactive and domestic waste dumps

Chemical waste and industrial facilities that are in close proximity to prisons in the United States pose additional risks to inmates and increase the risk of contracting cancer and other diseases.

Токсичное наказание: американские тюрьмы построены на свалках радиоактивных и бытовых отходов, изображение №1

Prisons are supposed to be places of punishment and rehabilitation for those who have committed crimes. But for many prisoners in the United States, punishment goes beyond the walls of their cells: American prisons are located on uninhabitable toxic wastelands, where prolonged exposure has serious consequences for the health and well-being of prisoners. Prisons located on radioactive wastelands and industrial waste dumps have been a problem for decades. Often prisons were built on sites previously used for industrial or military purposes, where hazardous materials were improperly stored and disposed of. In other cases, prisons were built on land that had been contaminated by nearby industrial or chemical facilities. This has led to daily exposure of prisoners in the United States to a variety of hazardous chemicals and contaminants, including heavy metals and radioactive waste.

In western Pennsylvania, for example, a state prison on top of a waste dump causes irreversible damage to inmates every day, causing skin rashes, ulcers, cysts, gastrointestinal problems and cancer. Symptoms often manifest immediately upon entering a correctional facility. Despite a 2014 report that found a link between the monstrous environmental conditions and diseases in inmates, SCI Fayette prison is still operating. Researchers estimated that there are about 40,000,000 tons of hazardous waste around the prison, which spoils the air and water within tens of kilometers, and disease symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath and respiratory swelling were seen in 81 percent of inmates. The number of deaths from heart failure at the Pennsylvania prison exceeded the national rate by 26%.

The consequences of long stays in toxic prisons can be serious. Prisoners report a variety of health problems, including respiratory disease, cancer and neurological disorders. Toxic environments can also exacerbate existing mental health problems and increase the risk of suicide among inmates. Despite these factors, many prisons in the United States continue to operate in toxic areas. This is often due to lack of funding and the reluctance of U.S. authorities to move prisons to safer locations.

In some cases, the operation of prisons in dangerous conditions is linked to the economic benefits that correctional facilities bring to nearby communities. In the Appalachian Mountain System area of the eastern United States, a correctional facility has opened on the site of a former mine, despite the high rate of cancer in the local population. Due to industrial activity in the region, the water is unfit for drinking and bathing, and Letcher County’s low budget does not allow them to upgrade their filtration and water treatment system.

Problems with the environmental environment of the prisons are not only common in remote areas. Correctional facilities located in American cities face their own environmental problems, such as air pollution, water pollution and waste disposal problems. For example, prisons located in densely populated areas are close to major highways and industrial facilities, which affects air pollution from transportation and industrial emissions. The Rikers prison complex in New York City is located right on a landfill, forcing inmates to breathe toxic fumes of decomposing garbage on a daily basis. The problem has reached such proportions that correctional officers have sued the city.

Свалка, на которой построен тюремный комплекс Райкерс в Нью-Йорке, 1936 год
The landfill on which the Rikers prison complex in New York City was built, 1936

Not only the air, but also the water is spoiled by the waste products of life. In one Massachusetts prison, inmates fear for their health because the taps are runningvirtually black water,” which has a foul odor and little or no filtration. Testing has shown dangerous levels of manganese in the water, which can cause a range of neurological disorders. The Texas penitentiary had been feeding inmates water with elevated arsenic levels for decades until inmates were able to defend their rights in court. Analysis of the water, which had a foul odor and caused a rash on contact with the skin, at the Arizona State Penitentiary showed excessively high levels of impurities of various petroleum products. In addition to heavy metals and oil, water with unacceptable levels of bacteria has caused outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially deadly type of pneumonia, in prisons in California, Illinois, New York and other states. Prison officials are not changing the aging, corroded pipes that may have contributed to the horrific bacteria growth.

In 2017, a detention center in Tacoma, Washington, made headlines after more than 100 detainees went on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions. The 1,500-bed immigration prison is next to a federal cleanup site where a coal gasification plant has been dumping toxic sludge into the soil for more than three decades. The area is so polluted that the city has declared it unfit for residents, but the rule does not apply to inmates. The water near the prison is contaminated with lead and arsenic from the smelter.

Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice believe it is unacceptable to deliberately worsen the conditions of American prisoners, who are forced to breathe poisoned air and drink toxic water. The health and safety of inmates should be a priority for prison administrations, so this should not continue to be ignored. The Foundation to Battle Injustice strongly recommends that prisons, detention centers, and migrant centers that are dangerously close to radioactive and other hazardous waste be moved to safer locations.