Washington, DC — A prison industry that recycles old computer terminals is under investigation for exposing both prison staff and inmates to harmful levels of toxic materials, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Dangers flagged by the prison’s own staff have been removed from the response the prison made to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, which is conducting the review.
The federal penitentiary at Atwater is a maximum-security institution located just outside of Merced in California’s great Central Valley. The federal prison industry authority, called UNICOR, has operated a computer recycling plant at Atwater since 2002 but the operation has been plagued by safety problems and shutdowns. Six other federal prisons have similar computer recycling plants.
In late December, the prison’s own staff filed an OSHA complaint, alleging that –
· Particles of heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium, are released when inmate workers break the glass cathode ray tubes during shipping and disassembling;
· The UNICOR factory at Atwater provides an open food service in the contaminated work areas; and
· Neither prison staff nor inmates were informed of health risks. No training on handling contaminants is provided. Blood and urine monitoring is incomplete.
In his initial draft response to OSHA, the warden at Atwater acknowledged many of these problems. The Federal Bureau of Prisons headquarters, however, removed most of admissions of fault from its final response that was sent out on February 11, 2005. Institution staff at Atwater promptly wrote the warden to protest the changes and challenge the accuracy of the final report to OSHA.
“The concern is not only about prisoners but about staff who go home with toxic dust on their clothes and risk spreading contamination to their families,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that wipe samples taken off skin, clothing, floors and work surfaces showed dangerous levels of hazardous dust. “Recycling computer parts is inherently a dirty business but it does not have to be a deadly one.”
In recent months, both the State of California and Dell, the country’s largest computer maker, have cancelled their computer recycling contracts with UNICOR. Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also suspended its contract. None of these moves, however, were prompted by safety concerns but all have the effect of placing greater economic pressure on keeping costs low for the remaining UNICOR computer clients.
“At a time when budgets are getting thinner, the temptation to cut corners and put workers at risk becomes even greater,” Ruch added, pointing to the larger question as to whether UNICOR is equipped to handle electronic waste safely. “At the very least, there needs to be an independent investigation into what is going on at Atwater.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons is an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice. Thus, the new U.S. Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, now oversees one of the largest prison systems in the world.