MEDIA RELEASE: As Department of Corrections refuses to release information about prisoner health, human rights groups, LaBelle residents launch health survey of their own

February 10, 2015 – The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) and the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) have launched a comprehensive health survey of prisoners at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette. The prison sits next to a 500-acre coal ash dump operated by Matt Canestrale Contracting. Prisoners, current and former guards, and nearby residents have reported a range of illnesses and symptoms that are consistent with exposure to toxic coal waste, raising concerns that the dump may be making people sick. The prison is also serviced by Tri-County Joint Municipal Water Authority, which has reported levels of cancer-causing Total Tri-halomethanes (TTHMs) in their water supply above the EPA Maximum Contaminant Level for the past several years.

The groups will send the 8-page survey by mail to all of the more than 2,000 prisoners at SCI Fayette. Prisoners will be asked to complete the survey and return it by mail. The Department of Corrections (DOC) has been notified of the survey and reminded of its responsibility to comply with constitutional standards that prohibit censorship of mail sent to prisoners.

Meanwhile, a grassroots community group, with support from the Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ), will be conducting a similar survey in the town of LaBelle. The town, which has about 300 residents, sits on the other side of the dump from the prison. Many people there also report chronic illnesses that are consistent with exposure to toxic coal waste.

“This survey of both residents of LaBelle and incarcerated people will provide a better picture of health problems in the immediate area around the dump, something which has not been done before,” said Eva Westheimer, community organizer with CCJ.

ALC and HRC conducted a preliminary survey of 75 prisoners last year, which revealed high rates of respiratory problems, gastrointestinal problems, and skin conditions among prisoners responding to the survey. These findings were published in a report entitled No Escape, in September of 2014. In response to this report, the DOC conducted its own review of prisoner medical records and published a two-page press release on New Years Eve 2014, summarizing its findings and denying any problems or wrongdoing.

The DOC’s press release reported that rates of cancer, respiratory, and gastrointestinal diseases between 2010 and 2013 were not above average, when compared to other prisons under DOC management. The press release included no mention of many of the health conditions discussed in No Escape, nor did it discuss any attempts to test the grounds of the prison for the presence of coal ash, or to account for undiagnosed or untreated conditions among prisoners, which could only be captured by a comprehensive health survey.

At the same time, DOC has refused to make the data from its review public, denying several Right-to-Know requests submitted by ALC and HRC, as well as journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Herald-Standard. “What we do know about the DOC’s review is that it was a very narrow study designed to deny and dismiss the existence of a problem at SCI Fayette. How can we trust the Department to objectively determine if there is a problem, when it has every interest in that problem not existing, and when it repeatedly acts in bad faith by obstructing access to public records,” said ALC attorney Dustin McDaniel. “Many people living next to this dump both in prison and in the community are sick. What we don’t know is how many people and the extent to which they are suffering from the same problems. With this survey, prisoner advocates and community leaders are working together to find out.”

 

Contact:

 

Dustin McDaniel                        dsm@abolitionlawcenter.org             412-651-7485

 

Eva Westheimer                        eva@coalfieldjustice.org                        724-229-3550

Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project to Launch at Jail Oversight Board meeting on Thursday

Jail workers, human rights advocates, community groups, and inmates’ family members seek an end to appalling health care at ACJ

PITTSBURGH- Allegheny County area advocacy organizations will announce the launch of the new Allegheny County Jail, Health Justice Project this Thursday, at 4:30 p.m. during the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board meeting, with a press conference to follow.  The ACJ Health Justice Project seeks to ensure that members of our community incarcerated at ACJ receive comprehensive health care.

This Thursday marks one month since Frank Smart, 39, died, after less than a day in ACJ custody.  “I lost one whole child because of one pill. All he needed was one pill,” said Tomi Harris, mother of Frank Smart, who died at ACJ on January 5, 2015.  During a phone call hours before his death, Frank said that he was not being provided his anti-seizure medication.  Unfortunately, Mr. Smart was not the first member of our community to lose his life at the hands of Corizon Prison Health Management under the careless watch of Allegheny County officials.  It is time to act to ensure that no more fathers, sons, sisters or wives suffer dire health consequences as a result of unconstitutionally inadequate care created by Corizon’s poor management and cost cutting measures.

Over 18,000 residents of Allegheny County pass through ACJ each year.  Once there they are experiencing unacceptable delays in receiving medical care and the denial of necessary prescriptions simply because Corizon has deemed crucial medications too expensive.  Compounding matters, the medical staff at ACJ are being denied critical supplies and organizational supports they need to provide care: all with an almost $12 million annual cost to Allegheny County.

Despite repeated warnings and admonishments from public officials and private citizens alike, Corizon is refusing to even admit there is a problem.  This should come as no surprise from a national prison profiteer that has been named in over 660 medical malpractice lawsuits.

The ACJ Health Justice Project calls on Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper and the members of the Jail Oversight Board: Judge Cashman, Judge Williams, Ms. Lazlo, Ms. Moss, Sheriff Mullen, and Dr. Walker to step up to the plate and sincerely oversee the abysmal medical care at ACJ.  They cannot continue to look the other way when the mortality rate at the ACJ is twice that of the national average.  The ACJ Health Justice Project calls on these members of our County government to ensure that members of our community are not being sentenced to death at the time of incarceration at ACJ.  Corizon Health has shown time and time again that they do not care about the health and well being of our community.

Rich Fitzgerald, Warden Harper, Judge McDaniel, Judge Williams, Ms. Lazlo, Ms. Moss, Sheriff Mullen and Dr. Walker, have the responsibility to stop these human rights abuses.  Do not commit another taxpayer dollar to Corizon Health, show them the door this September.  Our community deserves better.

Organizations endorsing the project include the Abolitionist Law Center, the PA Institutional Law Project, United Steelworkers, New Voices Pittsburgh, We Change Pittsburgh, the Garden of Peace Project, the Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up!, and Fight Back Pittsburgh.

Contact:    Randa Ruge                      rruge@usw.org         412-522-9687
Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz    amorgan-kurtz@pailp.org 412-434-6175