Federal Prison Computer Recycling Created Toxic Nightmare

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Federal Prison Computer Recycling Created Toxic Nightmare

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

Washington, DC — 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 illnesses.

“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.”


See the Justice Department Inspector General report

Examine the prison-by-prison documents

Look at Leroy Smith’s original whistleblower complaint

View the 2006 PEER call for this investigation

Phone: 202-265-7337

962 Wayne Avenue, Suite 610
Silver Spring, MD 20910-4453

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Environmental Responsibility

PEER is a 501(c)(3) organization
EIN: 93-1102740