Washington, DC — The top safety official for the Federal Bureau of Prisons has abruptly resigned as concerns over mishandling of toxic residues from prison industry computer recycling operations spread from one prison to other facilities, according to agency emails released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
On May 16, Steven Tussey resigned as National Safety Administrator for the federal prison system effective June 2. His abrupt retirement after only three years on the job raises questions about findings of a system-wide review that seven computer recycling prison enterprises are exposing both prison staff and inmates to harmful levels of toxic materials.
This spring, Leroy Smith, the safety manager at Atwater Federal Prison, a maximum-security institution located just outside of Merced, California, went public with documents that inmates using hammers for breaking computer terminals down to components parts for recycling are also spewing particles of heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium, over themselves and civilian prison staff. The factory at Atwater also provided an open food service in the contaminated work areas.
Now, safety officials at the Federal Correctional Institution at Elkton (Ohio) are raising similar red flags about their facility’s computer recycling operation. Filters coated with lead dust have been routinely been handled by untrained staff and improperly stored in open bins. Neither staff nor inmates were warned of dangers of direct exposure to the toxic dust that coated their hair, skin and clothing every day.
“The Attorney General is supposed to oversee the Federal Bureau of Prisons but oversight from the Attorney General is nowhere to be seen,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that a Department of Justice response to a November 15, 2004 referral of Leroy Smith’s whistleblower disclosure is four months overdue. “Given the past record of Alberto Gonzales on issues of prisoner mistreatment, he should be stepping up to the plate on this investigation, not hiding behind subordinates.”
Besides Atwater and Elkton, five other federal prisons have similar computer recycling plants: Ft. Dix (NJ), Lewisburg (PA), Marianna (FL), Texarkana (TX) and Tucson (AZ). The Federal Bureau of Prisons is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, headed by Attorney General and former White House Counsel, Alberto Gonzales. Consequently, Gonzales is now in charge of one of the world’s largest prison systems.
Smith, who first brought these problems to light, is now a magnet for his colleagues in the other facilities who were unaware of the health risks. San Francisco attorney Mary Dryovage, who is representing Smith, in a whistleblower action that seeks transfer out of Atwater and restoration of a lost promotion, commented that, “The Federal Bureau of Prisons is now on a campaign to discredit Leroy Smith, a 13-year employee with a spotless record and past performance awards, rather than figuring out how to address the health and safety problems.”