Washington, DC — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been directed to investigate a whistleblower disclosure that a prison computer recycling operation is exposing both prison staff and inmates to harmful levels of toxic materials, according to a letter from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Attorney General’s report is supposed to be reviewed by both the independent Office of Special Counsel and the prison safety manager, who revealed the dangers, prior to its public release.

The federal penitentiary at Atwater, a maximum-security institution located just outside of Merced, California, has operated a computer recycling plant since 2002 but the operation has been plagued by safety problems and shutdowns. After repeated attempts to cut toxic contamination had been rebuffed, Leroy Smith, the safety manager at Atwater, filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and sought whistleblower redress with the Office of Special Counsel.

At Atwater, inmates using hammers break computer terminals down to components parts for recycling. 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 factory at Atwater provides an open food service in the contaminated work areas.

This past Tuesday, more than two months after Smith’s complaint, OSHA finally entered the Atwater prison to conduct its required inspection. Contrary to its own rules, OSHA negotiated a pre-scheduled time for its inspection with prison authorities.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is an agency under the U.S. Department of Justice, headed by the new U.S. Attorney General and former White House Counsel, Alberto Gonzales. In his new position, Gonzales oversees one of the largest prison systems in the world. The Gonzales report to the Office of Special Counsel was due on February 28, 2005. As the whistleblower, Smith has a right to see and comment upon the report before the Special Counsel decides whether more investigation is needed.

“Wipe samples taken off skin, clothing, floors and work surfaces have shown dangerous levels of hazardous dust,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that containment systems used by the prison for dust particles are crude, at best. “While the inmates are not going anywhere, staff who go home with toxic dust on their clothing risk spreading contamination to their families.”

Six other federal prisons have similar computer recycling plants but Gonzales has confined his investigation to Atwater.

Smith is a 13-year Federal Bureau of Prisons employee with a spotless record and past performance awards. San Francisco attorney Mary Dryovage, who is representing, in his whistleblower action, said, “It is a shame that conscientious public servants have to run a gauntlet of retaliation just to do their jobs.”


Read the Special Counsel’s order for Department of Justice review

Learn about the OSHA complaint filed by the prison safety staff

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