How prisons are poisoning their inmates

Hundreds of U.S. prisons and ICE detention centers are built on toxic sites, and people inside are getting sick.

How prisons are poisoning their inmates

Hundreds of U.S. prisons and ICE detention centers are built on toxic sites, and people inside are getting sick.

A week after Richard Mosley arrived as an inmate at Pennsylvania’s maximum-security SCI Fayette prison in 2008, he started getting sick. The air outside was so contaminated that his nose kept closing up. Then came the weight loss, followed by the gastrointestinal problems. Pretty soon, Mosley was relying on asthma masks to breathe. “I was going back and forth to medical trying to get some kind of relief or diagnosis,” he told The Outline. “I think I went maybe 35, 40 times.”

Mosley, a Philadelphia native and self-described “health nut,” wasn’t used to falling ill. Before coming to SCI Fayette, he rarely even caught colds. But he says all of the doctors he saw at SCI Fayette insisted that his health problems weren’t real. “They kept telling me, ‘Oh, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s psychosomatic. You’re imagining it.’” At one point, he says a doctor blamed his failing health on allergies.

Meanwhile, Mosley started writing letters to local officials three days per week. “I was making a big stink,” he said. “If I was going to die there, I wasn’t going to die quietly.” He knew something was wrong. All around him, inmates were suffering. Skin rashes, gastrointestinal problems, and breathing issues were common across the prison. Everyone had a runny nose. The water quality was so abhorrent that guards brought bottled water for their onsite patrol dogs, according to Mosley. But the inmates still had to drink from the tap.

Richard Mosley

Richard Mosley

Only after he completed his sentence in 2012 and received a phone call from the Pennsylvania-based advocacy group Abolitionist Law Center did Mosley finally learn what was making him sick.

SCI Fayette was built in 2003 on the edge of a coal-ash dump for a nearby mine. Winds regularly sent that ash, which contained arsenic, lead, and mercury, into the air around the prison, and SCI Fayette inmates who inhaled it for a sustained period of time reported respiratory problems. Longer-term risks included thyroid cancer and lung disease.

The ash also seeped into the water, creating elevated levels of trihalomethanes, a carcinogen produced from a reaction between the ash and chlorine, according to a VICE report from 2015. Local residents were warned of these risks; the people incarcerated at SCI Fayette were not. (Though the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has conducted tests showing that the water meets drinking standards, environmental activists have questioned its limited methodological scope.)

“If I was going to die there, I wasn’t going to die quietly.”
Richard Mosley, an imate at SCI Fayette from 2008 to 2012

Despite resistance from activist groups, state and federal prisons continue to be built in dangerous environments that imperil the health of inmates. In March, President Donald Trump allocated an unprecedented $510 million to construct a federal prison in Kentucky, the most expensive prison project in U.S. history. Yet the prison is located on a former coal mine much like the one where SCI Fayette was built, and advocates believe it may cause extensive health problems among future inmates, including respiratory and thyroid illnesses.

Last year, a Truthout investigation uncovered arsenic-laced water in the Wallace Pack Unit prison, which houses mostly elderly and disabled prisoners in Navasota, Texas. They also discovered that from 2008 to 2011 the California State Prison in Lancaster was home to a soil-based fungus that causes valley fever, a respiratory infection that is especially dangerous for black and Filipino inmates. (The fungus is most dangerous when it disseminates out of the lungs and throughout the body. A 2011 study showed Black people are 14 times more likely than their white counterparts to experience dissemination, while Filipinos are 175 times more likely.) In California’s Kern Valley State Prison, which has air quality levels below the minimum set by the Clean Air Act, a black inmate who contracted valley fever sued the state for a hate crime — its negligence, the inmate argued, imperiled the prison’s disproportionately black population. At Rikers Island in New York, which was built on a toxic-waste landfill, inmates have reported coughing up blood and guards have developed cancer.

Many of these toxic prisons also serve as immigrant detention facilities. For instance, South Florida’s Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, which currently houses hundreds of immigrant children who have been separated from their families, is built only about two miles from a Superfund site at the former Homestead Air Force Base.

“This is something that’s going on throughout the country,” Mosley told me. “[Contractors] extract all the good stuff from the land, then they sell it to waste companies that contaminate the land, and then they sell it to prisons. Then they start shipping inmates there, and people start getting sick.”

According to Paige Williams, a cartographer who mapped out the phenomenon of toxic prisons as a student at Humboldt State University, 589 of the 1,821 federal and state prisons in the U.S. stand within three miles of a Superfund site — an Environmental Protection Agency designation denoting an area of land that is so contaminated it is dangerous to the public health — with 134 being within one mile of such a site.

In 2014, the Abolitionist Law Center found that, in a survey of 75 former and current inmates at SCI Fayette, 61 had respiratory problems, 51 had gastrointestinal issues, and 39 had experienced skin rashes. Of the 17 people who died while incarcerated from 2010 to 2013, 11 did so because of cancer.

SCI Fayette is located beside a coal mine

SCI Fayette is located beside a coal mine

Since 1997, according to VICE, residents in nearby La Belle, Pennsylvania, complained that the ash made it difficult to breathe. The prison, which opened in 2003, was built in spite of this. “It wasn’t no mystery to the people in power what was going on,” Mosley said.

“SCI Fayette presents some of the clearest cases, but there are a bunch of other prisons next to landfills, mining sites, Superfund [sites], military base contamination,” Panagioti Tsolkas, an activist at The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, which works in collaboration with the Abolitionist Law Center, told The Outline. “There are several dozen that come to mind that I can rattle off. Every couple days, new ones pop up.”

When a new prison is built, officials are required to generate a federal environmental impact statement (EIS), a report that weighs the pros and cons of a “major federal action” on the nearby area. But an EIS considers only the impact the prison might have on the local environment, not the impact the local environment might have on the prison or on the people incarcerated within it.

The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington provides an instructive example of how economics, paired with contempt for the safety of incarcerated people, can lead politicians to support the construction of prisons in toxic environments.

The center, which houses up to 1,575 undocumented immigrants, is operated by the GEO Group, a private prison organization that is expected to profit immensely from the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policies for detaining undocumented immigrants. On the edge of the detention center’s property is the Tacoma Tar Pits, which is named for the three decades worth of toxic sludge that a nearby coal plant dumped into wetlands there, leaving them completely black. Since the 1990s, excess soil was piled onto the site, forming a hill, in a half-hearted attempt to bury the contamination. The EPA groups the Tar Pits into its Commencement Bay Tideflats Superfund site, a larger area that has also suffered lead and arsenic runoff from a copper smelter.

When the Northwest Detention Center was first planned at the turn of the century, the EPA had already designated the Commencement Bay Tideflats — including the Tar Pits — as a high-priority toxic region. A 2001 environmental impact statement draft — which was submitted for public comment before it could be finalized — found “undefined levels of hazardous waste contamination that exceed established regulatory levels for soil and groundwater.”

Northwest Detention Center

Northwest Detention Center

When Tacoma agreed to accept the new facility, the GEO Group presented two options, according to a report from InvestigateWest: build the prison by the city’s port, which is near an economic hub further from the Superfund sites, or locate it on Tacoma’s outskirts, on top of the Tar Pits. That same environmental review, which InvestigateWest obtained in 2012, explicitly stated that the prison should be built on the port because the Tar Pits posed “an unidentified risk” and “liability concerns.”

But local politicians paid no attention. They feared that if the prison were built near the port, it would disrupt potential economic opportunities for the city.

Among those pushing for construction on the toxic Tar Pits was then-Tacoma City Councilman Kevin Phelps, who told InvestigateWest in 2012 that if the city “had to have it in Tacoma, I’d rather help try to encourage where it went, and we didn’t want it on prime port property.” Phelps even sent letters to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is now part of ICE, warning that if the prison were built on the port, “Tacoma will make every possible effort to keep the INS from constructing a facility on this site.” U.S. Congressmen for Washington state Norm Dicks and Adam Smith also contacted INS to express their “alarm” at the possibility that the prison would end up near the port.

But an environmental impact statement considers only the impact the prison might have on the local environment, not the impact the local environment might have on the prison or on the people incarcerated within it.

The outcry worked. For unspecified reasons, the INS revised the final version of the environmental impact statement to say that both locations were satisfactory, even though federal law generally requires that an EIS choose a preferred location. Construction began at the Tar Pits site in 2003. (The EPA and the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the record.)

More than a decade later, health concerns persist at the Northwest Detention Center. “We have heard again and again complaints about the water, [the] smell, taste and looks of it,” Maru Mora Villalpando, an activist at the immigrant group Latino Advocacy, told The Outline. “Just yesterday a person detained called me and told me every time he drinks the water he feels sick.”

Last month, ICE transferred 1,000 undocumented immigrants to the Victorville Federal Correctional Complex in Southern California. FCI Victorville is built on a Superfund site, and according to the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Board, industrial solvents like trichlorethylene, pesticides like dieldrin and aldrin, and chemicals from jet fuel have contaminated the region’s water supply.

USP Victorville, one of several prisons (including FCI Victorville) located in the area

USP Victorville, one of several prisons (including FCI Victorville) located in the area

FCI Victorville was constructed on the now-defunct George Air Force Base, which since the Cold War was tasked with preparing for a Soviet attack on the Pacific Coast. The base became a hub of nuclear missiles and other radioactive substances, many of which were stored in barrels in the land.

The water board, which has been pushing for extensive soil testing in the area, wrote that the water could be dangerous to those who consumed it. According to Truthout, “Repeated exposure to small quantities of chlorinated pesticides can build up in the human system. In large quantities, they can cause chronic health problems, including Parkinson’s disease, breast cancer and damage to the immune, reproductive and nervous systems.”

In 1979, Chief of Environmental Officer John R. Sabol, who conducted environmental tests for the U.S. Air Force, found that 18 to 20 55-gallon drums of radioactive material — the size of a large propane tank — had been dumped at the site. That’s a quarter mile upstream of the wells used at the George Air Force Base, and according to Frank Vera, a serviceman who now runs a website dedicated to exposing the toxicity of the Victorville site, the radioactive waste likely trickled directly into them.

“The groundwater flows northeast from the [radioactive dumping site], directly toward these drinking water supply wells,” Vera told The Outline. “This created a potential exposure to tens of thousands of civilians, and military personnel and their family members over the years.”

Service members at George have blamed the radioactive waste for numerous health problems. Kenn Finkelstein, who arrived at George when he was 17, told The Outline that he developed hundreds of warts on his feet before later losing a kidney to cancer. Frank Vera was discharged for health reasons in 1974 after suffering seizures, migraines, and excessive bleeding because of radiation exposure. And last month, a report in the Military Times concluded that women who served at the George Air Force Base in the 1990s had disproportionate numbers of hysterectomies, miscarriages, and babies born with birth defects. Many of those women reported being warned, “Don’t get pregnant.”

Radioactive contamination at the George Air Force Base

Radioactive contamination at the George Air Force Base

Since the base closed in 1992 and converted into a prison complex 12 years later, the EPA has done little to clean up the water. Newsweek referenced the city of Victorville last year in its report on the EPA’s policy of monitored natural attenuation, or MNA, in which the agency leaves toxic water to degrade on its own. Instead of cleaning up the water supply at Victorville, the EPA has elected to simply wait it out.

In September 2016, the local water board argued that the water in the Victorville would not be fully safe for “over 500 years,” which it called “an unreasonable and unacceptable timeframe for restoration.”

“Just yesterday a person detained called me and told me every time he drinks the water he feels sick.”
Maru Mora Villalpando, an activist at the immigrant group Latino Advocacy, speaking about the Northwest Detention Center in Washington

“It’s just the water that you’ve got to drink, and bathe in, and have your food prepared in,” said Eric McDavid, a self-described “green anarchist” who after being convicted in 2007 (and later partially exonerated) for a Northern California bomb plot served three and a half years at Victorville. After his release in 2015, McDavid tasked a friend with conducting a blood test on him. He found elevated levels of copper in his system — “40 times higher than what it should have been.”

Pauline Blake, who was detained in Victorville from 2011 to 2016, told The Outline that inmates were instructed only to drink water — which sometimes had “a grayish-brown tint” — that had gone through a filter. But she noticed that guards refused to drink even the filtered water that inmates relied on. “Very rare[ly] would you see an officer drink out of our water fountains,” she said.

According to Blake, during her time at Victorville, the prison saw an outbreak of stomach ulcers caused by the bacterium H. pylori. According to reporting from Prison Legal News, the bacterium has in recent years been blamed for 379 illnesses in the California prison Deuel Vocational Institution, 106 in Mule Creek State Prison, and 40 in Valley State Prison for Women. In all cases, food and water contamination was responsible for the outbreak. At Victorville, Blake said, stomach ulcers were incredibly common: “Everyone was getting it for a while.”

When Raymond Luc Levasseur was transferred to the Colorado supermax prison ADX Florence in 1995, he steeled himself for the worst. Though at his first prison, USP Marion, Levasseur was isolated in solitary confinement and could rarely communicate with other inmates, he had heard the rumors — ADX Florence was the new Alcatraz, a prison so tightly guarded it could drive you mad. And it was built near a toxic nuclear waste site.

Prior to the grand opening of ADX Florence in November 1994, the Federal Bureau of Prisons had a simple pitch for the new facility. It would be the first in the world intended to function under permanent lockdown. Most prisoners would remain sequestered in isolated, single-person units for 23 hours a day, and they could not leave their cells unless they were shackled. Within a few decades of its opening, ADX Florence came to house some of the nation’s most notorious criminals, including “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, and Oklahoma City conspirator Terry Nichols.

Federal officials considered Levasseur to be part of that crowd. In 1986, the Maine-born Levasseur, who co-founded the militant Marxist group United Freedom Front, was convicted for organizing a series of bombings to protest apartheid, which he helped carry out from 1976 to 1984.

Ray Luc Levasseur

Ray Luc Levasseur

Levasseur always suspected the water at ADX Florence was contaminated. Prior to the prison’s opening, activists held rallies and distributed petitions to halt construction because the land alongside it was known to contain toxic nuclear waste. That waste was reported to have leaked into the water supply. The prison’s own 1989 environmental impact statement noted that the Arkansas River, ADX’s main water source, was “subject to pollution which could render its water supply unusable.”

The problem was the Cotter Uranium Mill, a now-defunct facility that produced yellowcake — powdered uranium that has yet to be enriched, an intermediate step in the production of nuclear weapons — and that sits just a few miles away from the prison. For 21 years, Cotter actively produced and stored radioactive chemicals like uranium, vanadium, and molybdenum. In the late 1960s, 250 kilograms of nuclear waste — equivalent to two standard furnaces — from the world’s first atomic bomb was sent to Cotter. By 1987, Cotter was home to more than 3.5 million tons of radioactive waste, and much of that was stored in lined ponds — which are usually around 40 feet deep — meant to keep materials from leaking out.

But the materials did seep out. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office documented more than 70 leaks at Cotter from 1980 to 1986, according to historian Robert Perkinson’s 1994 paper “Shackled Justice: Florence Federal Penitentiary and the New Politics of Punishment,” which was published in the journal Social Justice. The leaks led the EPA to declare the Cotter Uranium Mill a Superfund site in 1984. Shortly before ADX Florence was built, EPA reports identified elevated levels of molybdenum, uranium, radium, radon gas, polonium, selenium, and sulfate in the water, almost certainly as a result of Cotter’s spills. But the EPA does not have the final say in land use decisions.

On his arrival at ADX Florence in 1995, Levasseur saw these health risks firsthand. In an email to The Outline, he described a friend, Skip, who developed a tumor on his calf “the size of a grapefruit” before being transferred to Missouri for medical attention. He died soon after. Though Skip was only in his thirties, “his sister wrote me that the body looked 90 years old,” Levasseur said. Another friend, who Levasseur called Poochie, died in his bunk after guards failed to notice that he wasn’t getting up to eat meals. Levasseur never learned his cause of death. And a man Levasseur called “AB” developed small lumps across his body during his time at ADX.

Levasseur’s knowledge of what other inmates experienced was limited by design. Because he was in near-constant solitary confinement, “a prisoner could drop dead a hundred yards from me and I wouldn't find out about it for a long time, if ever,” he said.

ADX Florence

ADX Florence

Though it's impossible to know exactly what called Levasseur's friends' illnesses, other prisoners made known their concerns about the water. Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican activist who helped lead a bombing campaign against the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s, wrote in his diary in 1996, “i will spend the rest of my time in prison drinking the dioxin-contaminated toxic water every day—a very dangerous carcinogenic substance.” Rivera feared that the contaminants at ADX Florence would degrade his health: “Since the average time that the prisoners spend here is 3 1/2 years maybe the dioxin hasn’t affected them that much. But i’ve already been here 8 1/2 years.” Rivera, who is now 75, was released last year after President Obama pardoned him.

The EPA still lists Cotter as a Superfund site, but the contamination concerns in Cañon City and Florence appear to be dwindling thanks to cleanup efforts (the site isn’t expected to lose Superfund status until at least 2027). “Potential public exposures are below regulatory limits,” Jennifer Opila, Radiation Program Manager at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told The Outline.

“A prisoner could drop dead a hundred yards from me and I wouldn't find out about it for a long time, if ever."
Raymond Luc Levasseur, an imate at ADX Florence from 1995 to 1999

But that wasn’t the case while Colorado was building up its rolodex of prisons in Fremont County, the Colorado county that incorporates Cañon City. The region is now nicknamed “Prison Valley” because of its enormous density of prisons — over 11 state and federal prisons holding 7,500 inmates sit among among a population of 46,000 full-time residents.

Though Fremont County’s first prison, the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, opened in Cañon City in 1871, most were built in the 1980s and 1990s at the height of contamination concerns. That means America’s foremost prison town was built up in conjunction with — and often without regard to — widespread concerns about contamination in the environment around it.

To toxic prison activists like Panagioti Tsolkas, that’s hardly surprising. “I think [it’s] the same reason why so many prisoners are not given the right to vote and held without any hope of parole,” he said. “Because they’re viewed as a subclass of the population, deserving of less basic rights, help, and protection.”

Hear additional quotes from Richard Mosley and an extended interview with Michael Waters on The Outline World Dispatch. Listen later in your favorite app or device below.

Pocket Casts / Overcast / Stitcher / TuneIn / Alexa / Anchor / 60 dB / RadioPublic / RSS / “OK Google, play news from The Outline.”