Washington, DC —The Inspector General for the U.S. Justice Department will investigate computer recycling enterprises operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to determine the extent of health hazards to staff and inmates, and why the Bureau failed to act on red flags raised by its own safety managers, according to letters released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
This investigation arises out of the formal whistleblower filings of Leroy Smith, the former safety manager at Atwater Federal Prison, a maximum-security institution located just outside of Merced, California. This past April, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that reviews whistleblower disclosures, validated Smith’s concerns and faulted the Bureau of Prisons for ignoring the exposure of both its staff and inmates to “excessive levels of toxic metals” from prison industries in which inmates wielding hammers smashed computer terminals using only cardboard boxes for “containment” of lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium particles.
Six other federal prisons have computer recycling plants, all run by the prison industry authority called UNICOR, similar to the one at Atwater. Even though test results at two of the prisons, Elkton, Ohio, and Texarkana, Texas, found similarly excessive exposure levels, the Bureau declined to investigate conditions at these facilities.
Although the Bush-appointed Special Counsel who formerly served in the Department of Justice (the parent agency overseeing the Bureau of Prisons), called for a “thorough, independent, and impartial investigation into recycling operations at [Bureau of Prisons] institutions,” no follow-up occurred until Smith’s lawyer, Mary Dryovage of San Francisco, and PEER called on the Justice Department Office of Inspector General to open a probe into health and safety violations at all the prison computer enterprises.
“The prison officials, including UNICOR managers, who are responsible for perpetuating these unsafe conditions and retaliating against their own safety staff need to be identified and disciplined,” said Dryovage, who also successfully represented Smith in a complaint of reprisal for raising safety concerns at Atwater. Smith has since accepted a transfer to another prison.
“The wheels of Justice do indeed turn slowly but it remains to be seen whether, once engaged, they will finally find traction,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch., noting that Smith came forward back in December 2004 with documents showing that computer terminal disassembly plants were spewing particles of heavy metals over inmates and civilian prison staff.
In its letter of May 9, 2006 to Ms. Dryovage and PEER, Carol Ochoa, the Assistant Inspector General for Oversight and Review noted that “We also received a referral of the matter from the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) and the Department of Justice.” While the original Bureau of Prisons review of Smith’s whistleblower disclosure was begun under Attorney General John Ashcroft, it was completed by his successor, Alberto Gonzales, who signed off on the final report that was found to be “unreasonable” and “inconsistent with documentary evidence” by the Special Counsel.