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.