Prison Computer Recycling Put Staff and Inmates at Risk

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Prison Computer Recycling Put Staff and Inmates at Risk

High Toxic Levels at Three Federal Prisons but Lack of Records Masks Health Effect

Washington, DC — Federal prisoners and staff overseers were exposed for years to excessive levels of toxic heavy metals during computer recycling operations, according to a new National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The absence of recordkeeping inside the prisons, however, prevented NIOSH from documenting any health problems from these illegal levels of exposure.

The December 22, 2009 NIOSH report was submitted to the Justice Department Office of Inspector General as part of its system-wide review of all the federal prison recycling centers. This NIOSH report covered conditions at federal prisons in Atwater (CA), Elkton (OH), Texarkana (TX) and Marianna (FL), and must be publicly displayed at each institution.

These recycling operations involve prisoners breaking up computer components, often with hammers, at for-profit prison industries. NIOSH concluded that, for years, these recycling operations lacked adequate containment to prevent workers from being coated with dangerous amounts of lead, cadmium and other heavy metals inside the hardware. The NIOSH report concluded that prison industry managers failed to –

  • Conduct “adequate planning and job hazard analysis before initiating electronics recycling operations”;
  • Identify “potential health hazards…in a timely manner.” As a result, “adequate hazard controls were not established for several years at some BOP [Bureau of Prison] institutions”; and
  • Provide any “training, guidance or oversight needed to address health hazards associated with electronics recycling” to staff and inmate workers.

NIOSH found that prison staff and inmates had been exposed to illegally high levels of toxins for years at all of the facilities it inspected except the one at Marianna. This report is part of the Justice Department Inspector General (IG) investigation, begun in 2006, into occupational and environmental compliance of prison computer recycling operations and the accountability of managers who ignored previous reports of problems. This Justice IG review was prompted by a whistleblower disclosure filed by a BOP safety manager named Leroy Smith back in 2004. According to the NIOSH report, it appears that the inspections spawned by Smith’s disclosures had led to new hazard-reduction practices.

“When the Justice Department IG finally completes its investigation, we hope that it names the particular federal managers responsible for these dangerous conditions and recommends appropriate disciplinary action,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization assisted Smith, “It is outrageous that federal prisons have been illegally undercutting legitimate recyclers to the potential detriment of their own staff and the inmates in their custody.”


Read the NIOSH report

See the whistleblower report that led to the current investigation

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