Nightmare in a Pennsylvania prison

A recent story in the International Business Times, which also later appeared in Newsweek, tells a rather chilling tale of an inmate’s medical problems in a Pennsylvania prison. It is entitled “Poison Prison” and offers a look at exactly this: a prison close to a coal ash dump site, where inmates are developing troubling and previously mysterious health problems. The story centers around a now-former inmate named Marcos Santos (he made parole in 2015 March). Quoting the story:

The 41-year-old Santos entered Fayette on Feb. 12, 2012, as a healthy man, both physically and mentally. He was serving a five-to-10-year sentence for selling cocaine in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He stood 5 feet 8 inches and weighed 164 pounds. The only medication he ever took was a daily dose of Lisinopril, meant to curb his high blood pressure. He prided himself on his body, his muscles.

But six months into his sentence at Fayette, Santos had become a different man. He was frail and in near-constant pain. […] Santos’ cellmate, nicknamed D-block, kindly offered Santos the bottom bunk so that he could get up more easily in the middle of the night.

Santos soon became a fixture in the prison’s infirmary, where he presented his rashes, skin welts and swollen eyeballs to the medical staff.


At 5:36 p.m. on Aug. 26, 2012, the evening he thought he might die, Santos sat alone in the prison hospital and was given two tablets of Tums. Santos recalls the nurse telling him, “If you make it, you make it.” (The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections declined to comment for this story, but medical records confirm Santos was administered only Tums that evening.)

Regular readers know my stance on drug prohibition; I’m not going to go into that here. Let’s assume for the moment that Marcus’s sentence of 5 to 10 years is justified, that it fits the crime in question. So that’s Marcus’s sentence, 5 to 10 years; he was not sentenced to the death penalty. He didn’t do anything either within or outside of the prison walls to justify the thoughts that he might die.

I am not suggesting in the least that we turn prisons into taxpayer-funded resorts for criminals. However, wantonly exposing prisoners to a known unhealthy environment is almost certainly a violation of the Eighth Amendment, and a rather flagrant one at that. Indeed, quoting from further in the article:

If he can prove that there is, in fact, a problem with the air quality in LaBelle, [Abolitionist Law Center attorney Dustin] McDaniel believes that keeping prisoners there is cruel and unusual punishment. “Health is a human right,” McDaniel wrote in his initial report, “and if the patterns that have emerged during our investigation are indicative of the harms and risks that accompany confinement at SCI Fayette, then it is imperative that the prison is shut down.”

Part of the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate (otherwise we may as well be sentencing everyone to life without or death, or at best, figuratively speaking, outfitting prisons with revolving doors, i.e. assuming prisoners are going to just come right back in after release). Rehabilitation is worthless if one is of markedly poorer health on release than on initial confinement (except for for natural decline of health due to aging), and part of the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate. Thus it just doesn’t make any sense to wantonly expose prisoners to unhealthy conditions.

I’m horrified that this Nurse Ratched wannabe who told him “If you make it, you make it” probably kept his or her job. Now I am a realist here; I’m not expecting prisoners to get first-rate care within a correctional setting, but I do expect those who work in correctional institutions to be decent people with at least a nominal level of compassion. This falls so far short of that it’s not funny; it’s an absolutely horrible way to treat someone, and crosses far below the line of what is acceptable. This nurse, in all likelihood, knew far more about the problem than Marcus did. He or she has probably seen the same thing month in and month out for quite some time, and knew that something unusual was going on.

(Sidenote: the story does not mention the nurse’s gender. In this case, it is noteworthy that male nurses are quite common for correctional settings. My comparison to Nurse Ratched is intended strictly on a personality basis without regard to gender.)

If I was in charge of PR for the Pennsylvania DOC, I probably would not want to comment on the story either. Even knowing what I know about PR, it is difficult to blame them for the classic “no comment” that some PR professionals love to hate. (It’s also quite possible there is still the potential for litigation, which is another good reason for “no comment.” Sometimes the advice of legal counsel takes precedence over that of PR counsel, and for good reason.)

Speaking of PR… another quote from the story:

McDaniel, the 35-year-old lawyer with the Abolitionist Law Center, gets visibly agitated when I bring up the DOC medical report, a report he calls “their bulls— investigation.”

“Their initial reaction was to manage it as a press relation issue,” he says. “It’s part of their attempt to defend themselves. They say, ‘Well, we investigated it and there was nothing there.'”

McDaniel grimaces when talking about the DOC. “People act as if there aren’t 2,000 people living next to this thing,” he says. “And when it’s raised, it’s like, “Oh, well they’re just prisoners. They shouldn’t have broken the law.’ But regardless of whether they’ve broken the law or not, this isn’t right.”

That has to be one of the lamest excuses for endangering lives: “…they’re just prisoners.” The Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, still applies to the accused and the convicted. “Cruel and unusual” applies whether done on purpose, or through negligence.

There is also the possibility that some of these prisoners will eventually win their appeals. I acknowledge there is a difference between pure pre-trial detainees and those who have been convicted at the trial court level, but we don’t know which prisoners will eventually be able to overturn their convictions for whatever reason.

For now, SCI Fayette is still operational. I’ll be revisiting this story in the future, hopefully after SCI Fayette is shut down.

Rural Pennsylvania cop causes accident, kills woman, not charged (yet)

A recent post on The Free Thought Project details yet another case of inexcusable police conduct. Trooper (for now) Frederick Schimp was on patrol at 3:30 am on Saturday, July 5. He failed to yield to cross traffic before crossing an intersection controlled by a stop sign, in this case a vehicle being driven by a 57-year old woman. Both Mr. Schimp and his partner were injured. The woman was not so lucky; she wound up not surviving the accident after being transported to a hospital. The trooper was not responding to a call, making his reason for either running the stop sign or not yielding all the more baffling.

If an average citizen did this, an arrest would be made immediately. No charges have been announced yet for Mr. Schimp, and it’s entirely possible he’ll be put on leave with pay (in effect, a paid vacation) while this is investigated. Kill someone, wreck a police vehicle in the process, and get a paid vacation? What kind of message does it send when our cops screw up and that’s how it’s handled?

It’s time for the Pennsylvania State Police to set the example on how this should be handled. I think a fairer solution: Officer is put on leave without pay, and only receives back pay only if and when cleared of wrongdoing. If there is wrongdoing in this case, the officer is subject to the same criminal charges as everyone else. Enforcing the law does not mean above the law. Blowing through a stop sign and causing a fatality to get to the doughnut shop a few minutes sooner or whatever should be punished severely, ideally as severely as it would be if one of us did it. I’m quite horrified that it’s taking this long to file and announce charges.

Ticketed for cussing?

Wow. My understanding of the First Amendment with regard to profanity was recently challenged. I’m glad to see that at least the ACLU sides with me.’s recent article explains the happenings in Pennsylvania where apparently there has been a rash of state troopers citing or even arresting citizens for disorderly conduct, including a pizza delivery driver who had to take off an entire day without pay to defend himself against the bogus charge.

[ACLU legal fellow Marieke] Tuthill said disorderly conduct charges for use of profanity have become common in Pennsylvania despite being routinely rejected and condemned by the courts. The suits allege that use of language that is “merely profane” and “not obscene” is protected by the First Amendment, and that criminal charges of any sort for the use of mere profanity therefore violate free speech rights.

It’s not surprising to me at all to see the ACLU’s Pennsylvania chapter has their hands full with this kind of thing. This is a classic case of “badge-itis” and an example where cops are at least nominally above the law, their badge becoming a “get away with it” card. I wonder how many cited for this so-called “disorderly” conduct are police officers? Probably none. I defy you to watch more than ten episodes of the TV show “Cops” or a similar reality-based show involving police officers without hearing one word from a cop beeped out. (While it’s probably possible to find ten such episodes, it would involve quite selective viewing habits.)

I do keep my three blogs profanity-free; this blog is the only one of the three that would be anywhere near likely to contain saltier language on occasion, and I still keep it clean as a matter of personal taste. The same cannot always be said of my Twitter stream and my Facebook feed. I’ll admit it; I can have quite the penchant for profanity. If this biases my perspective, so be it. But please remember, life is not a G-rated Disney movie!

I’d rather see cops writing speeding tickets for a known underposted stretch of road than writing tickets for swearing under the guise of “disorderly conduct.” And that says a lot, given I know a lot of speed limits are underposted on purpose.

A new twist on “school-owned”

A recent Computerworld story reveals a shocking violation of student privacy from a Pennsylvania school district.

The Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, provided laptops to its students, complete with webcams. This by itself is not an issue. What is an issue is that the school district had the ability to remotely activate the webcam and see whatever was in front of it, without the students’ or parents’ consent or knowledge.

From the article:

Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., said they first found out about the alleged spying last November after their son Blake was accused by a Harriton High School official of “improper behavior in his home” and shown a photograph taken by his laptop.

An assistant principal at Harriton later confirmed that the district could remotely activate the Webcam in students’ laptops. “Michael Robbins thereafter verified, through [Assistant Principal] Ms. Matsko, that the school district in fact has the ability to remotely activate the Webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the Webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer,” the lawsuit stated.

What could they possibly have been thinking?

While at school or at school-sponsored activities, discipline is the school’s responsibility. Cameras in schools and on school buses are fine. However, it is really not the school’s realm to discipline outside of school hours and school functions, and usually what goes on at home is none of school officials’ business. (I say “usually” because adults have the legal responsibility to report suspected child abuse and things of that nature.)

Shame on the snoops at Harriton High. And kids, don’t assume anything about that shiny laptop the school gave you; if it’s the school’s computer, there’s the ever-present possibility it can do anything the school wants, including rat you out at home. Just ask Blake.