The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
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Prison Computer Recycling Put Staff and Inmates at Risk

High Toxic Levels at Three Federal Prisons but Lack of Records Masks Health Effect


Federal prisoners and staff overseers were exposed for years to
excessive levels of toxic heavy metals during computer recycling
operations, according to a new National Institute of Occupational
Safety and Health (NIOSH) report posted today by Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The absence of recordkeeping
inside the prisons, however, prevented NIOSH from documenting any
health problems from these illegal levels of exposure.

December 22, 2009 NIOSH report was submitted to the Justice Department
Office of Inspector General as part of its system-wide review of all
the federal prison recycling centers. This NIOSH report covered
conditions at federal prisons in Atwater (CA), Elkton (OH), Texarkana
(TX) and Marianna (FL), and must be publicly displayed at each

These recycling operations involve prisoners
breaking up computer components, often with hammers, at for-profit
prison industries. NIOSH concluded that, for years, these recycling
operations lacked adequate containment to prevent workers from being
coated with dangerous amounts of lead, cadmium and other heavy metals
inside the hardware. The NIOSH report concluded that prison industry
managers failed to -

* Conduct "adequate planning and job hazard analysis before initiating electronics recycling operations";

Identify "potential health a timely manner." As a result,
"adequate hazard controls were not established for several years at
some BOP [Bureau of Prison] institutions"; and

* Provide any
"training, guidance or oversight needed to address health hazards
associated with electronics recycling" to staff and inmate workers.

found that prison staff and inmates had been exposed to illegally high
levels of toxins for years at all of the facilities it inspected except
the one at Marianna. This report is part of the Justice Department
Inspector General (IG) investigation, begun in 2006, into occupational
and environmental compliance of prison computer recycling operations
and the accountability of managers who ignored previous reports of
problems. This Justice IG review was prompted by a whistleblower
disclosure filed by a BOP safety manager named Leroy Smith back in
2004. According to the NIOSH report, it appears that the inspections
spawned by Smith's disclosures had led to new hazard-reduction

"When the Justice Department IG finally completes
its investigation, we hope that it names the particular federal
managers responsible for these dangerous conditions and recommends
appropriate disciplinary action," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff
Ruch, whose organization assisted Smith, "It is outrageous that federal
prisons have been illegally undercutting legitimate recyclers to the
potential detriment of their own staff and the inmates in their


Read the NIOSH report

See the whistleblower report that led to the current investigation

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.