This summer, prisoners at the Garner Correctional Institution (GCI) in Newtown, Connecticut responded to more than two decades of radon exposure at the facility by filing a class-action lawsuit.
“The length of time this went on didn’t have to happen,” said Lori Welch-Rubin, an attorney representing the prisoners along with attorneys Martin J. Minnella and Michael A. Stratton.
GCI opened in 1992 on land that was considered to have the highest potential for radon exposure, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) records. In a 2014 report, the state health department found that parts of the prison had in excess of five times the acceptable EPA levels of radon, a radioactive gas.
The prison houses around 550 prisoners in general population, close custody and a mental health unit, as well as pre-trial detainees and a small number of federal prisoners. It employs almost 300 staff members.
The lawsuit was filed in August 2016 on behalf of nine named plaintiffs and other GCI prisoners who were exposed to excessive indoor radon gas, a recognized carcinogen. According to the complaint, exposing prisoners to high levels of radon gas, “far in excess of any published safe level for more than 20 years,” constitutes deliberate indifference by prison officials.
The complaint noted that when radon gas is inhaled it can damage tissue in the lungs, making it the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, followed by exposure to second-hand or “environmental” tobacco smoke (known as ETS). In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Helling v. McKinney, upheld an Eighth Amendment claim filed by prisoners subjected to “unreasonably high levels” of ETS. [See: PLN, Sept. 1993, p.1].
Unlike tobacco smoke, radon is odorless and tasteless, making it impossible to detect without testing. But as attorney Welch-Rubin explained, the state has the capability to conduct those tests – as they have done at public schools for the past 13 years. The first radon test at GCI occurred in 2013.
The State Department of Public Health issued a memo in 2014 that found 58 of 117 test locations at GCI had radon levels at or above the EPA’s action level of 4.0 pCi/L (picocuries per liter of air). The memo reported the highest level of radon at 23.7 – the equivalent of smoking 2½ packs of cigarettes a day.
A newsletter produced by the DOC eventually acknowledged the high radon levels at GCI, accepted liability for the exposure and informed employees they could file workers’ compensation claims. Prisoners, who were subjected to far greater amounts of radon on a daily basis, were not notified, the lawsuit claims. Retired prison employees were not informed either.
Welch-Rubin said they were aware of at least one GCI nurse who died due to lung cancer four years ago, as well as prisoners such as Thomas Marra, who has been at GCI since the 1990s and suffers from terminal lung cancer.
The DOC newsletter later reported that an “emergency radon remediation project” using a system of new air ducts to vent the radon gas had been implemented, at a cost of $60,000. The project was complete by October 2014.
Additionally, the lawsuit alleges that the prison shares a water supply with nearby Middle Gate School in Newtown, where well testing in 2000 – eight years after GCI was built – revealed uranium levels in the water eight times greater than federal environmental standards. That information could have led to testing and remedial efforts at GCI many years earlier but, according to the complaint, that did not occur.
The class-action suit was filed against the state’s Commissioner of Corrections, Scott Semple, and the five commissioners who preceded him. GCI warden Henry Falcone was also named as a defendant, as well as the director of the DOC’s Engineering and Facilities Management office and his predecessor, and three other John Doe officials.
While the source of radon at GCI is unknown and the gas is naturally occurring, there are several suspects for the high levels at the prison, with industrial extraction and use of uranium high on the list. Connecticut has a long history of nuclear waste problems stemming from the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford, 68 miles from GCI, which is the largest power plant in New England. In 2013, for example, Millstone sought to expand onsite waste storage from 19 “cask units” of radioactive waste to 135 units by 2045.
However, uranium isn’t the only culprit. According to a report in Scientific American, titled “Coal Ash is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste,” the fossil fuel industry is also a major source of “naturally occurring” radon gas. For example, high levels of radon were noted in the environmental review for a new federal prison proposed on a former mountaintop coal mining site in Letcher County, Kentucky. The Human Rights Defense Center, the parent organization of Prison Legal News, noted that was a potential risk to prisoners in a comment submitted to the Bureau of Prisons last year. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.1].
Like many toxic prisons, the radon levels at GCI are not an isolated problem. Employees at the facility have also complained about air quality issues such as mold and mildew within the medical, mental health and dental areas.
The class-action suit over long-term exposure to high levels of radon at GCI remains pending, with an amended complaint filed on September 2, 2016. See: Grenier v. Semple, U.S.D.C. (D. Conn.), Case No. 3:16-cv-01465-AVC.
Sources: Republican American, Boston Globe, Scientific American, www.lung.org
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Related legal case
Grenier v. Semple
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (D. Conn.), Case No. 3:16-cv-01465-AVC|