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Washington, DC — In a defensively worded report, the Federal Bureau of Prisons conceded that its own staff and inmate workers in its computer recycling enterprises were exposed to harmful heavy metals above allowable safety limits, according to a report released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The agency also found “it is reasonable to conclude” that toxic contamination occurred at two other prisons, beyond California’s Atwater Federal Prison where problems were first reported.

The report was prepared in response to a whistleblower disclosure filed last year by Leroy Smith, the Atwater safety manager, with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Smith charged that inmates were showering particles of heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium, over themselves and civilian staff, when hammering apart computer terminals for recycling as part of a prison industry operation. The Bureau’s report –

  • Confirms the gist of Smith’s disclosure that inmates and staff had been exposed to lead, cadmium and barium above recommended safety limits;
  • Admits that officials repeatedly re-started recycling operations over the objections of safety manager Smith; and
  • Promises to institute disciplinary action against unnamed prison managers.

While the Federal Bureau of Prisons did not formally investigate conditions at the other six prisons with similar computer recycling enterprises, test results at two of the prisons, Elkton, Ohio, and Texarkana, Texas, found similarly excessive exposure levels. Nonetheless, the report maintains that problems identified by Smith are being corrected.

“In this report, the Federal Bureau of Prisons insists that the problems it initially had vehemently denied now have been magically resolved by the same managers who created them in the first place,” remarked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has been calling for an independent review. “Tellingly, the Bureau admits that there are probably similar safety problems at the other prison computer recycling plants but has decided not to investigate further.”

Director Harley Lappin signed the report, dated June 13, 2005, and submitted it to Special Counsel Scott Bloch but, inexplicably, Bloch’s office held the report for more than two months before transmitting it to the whistleblower as is required by law. Smith is allowed to comment on the report before the Special Counsel decides whether the agency response is adequate or requires additional work.

“Leroy Smith deserves a medal for risking his career to bring these problems to light but instead he is blackballed from going back to work,” stated 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. “While it is a good sign that the Federal Bureau of Prisons claims that it will discipline responsible officials, a slap on the wrist will not restore the health or the peace of mind of scores of affected employees and inmates.”


Read the Federal Bureau of Prisons report to the Office of Special Counsel

Look at Leroy Smith’s safety complaint

Learn about the abrupt resignation of the federal prison system safety chief and other developments

Phone: 202-265-7337

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