The Progressive


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For Immediate Release
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Federal Prison Computer Recycling Creates Toxic Nightmare

Inspector General: Staff & Inmates “Needlessly” Exposed to Excessive Heavy Metals


A multi-year investigation by the Justice Department Office of
Inspector General (IG) released this week declares that federal prison
industry that recycled computers and other electronics systematically
violated health, safety and environmental laws. Despite findings that
officials willfully endangered thousands of prison staff and inmates,
none will be prosecuted and most of the officials have retired without
any sanction, according to Public Employees for Environmental
Responsibility (PEER).

The report validates concerns voiced by a Bureau of Prisons (BOP)
safety manager, Leroy Smith, who first began raising alarms in 2001.
The IG investigation undertaken in 2006 at the request of PEER and
others looked at prison computer operations in eight states (CA, AZ, TX,
KS, OH, PA, NJ and FL) during the six years from 2003 to 2009. The
voluminous investigative report details that -

  • Prison and prison industry officials committed "numerous
    violations of health, safety, and environmental laws and regulations" in
    which "staff and inmates were needlessly exposed" to more than 30 heavy
    metals, particularly lead and cadmium;
  • The dangers were known but ignored by officials who "concealed
    warnings about hazards" from the recycling operations. In one instance,
    officials disabled a factory's fire alarm system for three years so
    that it would not be set off by clouds of toxic dust; and
  • While there is a "strong likelihood" that thousands of prison
    staff and inmates were exposed to excessive levels of harmful materials
    over the years the health effects are unknown because the prisons did no
    medical surveillance and did not keep required records of injuries and

"In the long tradition of prison labor, these operations employed
inmates with hammers but instead of rocks they were breaking computer
components with no containment or protective equipment," stated PEER
Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization aided Smith "Coated
in toxic dust, prison staff and inmates worked for years, in many cases
trailing heavy metals back to their homes and cellblocks."

The IG stated that most of the violations had abated by mid-2009 but the
most hazardous activity, glass-breaking of cathode ray tubes, ended due
to "economic considerations" not safety concerns. However, the report
warned that even this progress could be reversed by "lingering systemic
problems such as lack of technical resources [and] inadequate
oversight." In addition, profound legacy contamination from years of
dangerous operations at prison factories has yet to be assessed.

The report also cited "numerous" acts of illegality and misconduct by
BOP officials, including "willful violations" resulting in the
"endangerment of employees." Although BOP is a unit of the Justice
Department, DOJ took no action on any aspect covered by the IG report.

"It appears that no responsible official will be held to account for
what happened here and this fat report will simply sit on a shelf,"
added Ruch, noting that the IG referred some BOP officials for criminal
prosecution but those referrals were declined by the Justice Department.
"If these violations had been committed by a private business, people
would be going to prison but here they still run the prisons."

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.