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
· Particles of heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium,
are released when inmate workers break the glass cathode ray tubes during shipping
· 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
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.