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Washington, DC — The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has faulted the Federal Bureau of Prisons for failing to address exposure of both its staff and inmates to “excessive levels of toxic metals” from computer recycling enterprises. In so doing, the Special Counsel backed a prison safety manager who blew the whistle on a prison industry operation in which inmates wielding hammers smashed computer terminals using only cardboard boxes for “containment” of heavy metal particles.

In a letter dated April 3, 2006, Scott Bloch, the Bush appointed Special Counsel who formerly served in the Department of Justice (the parent agency overseeing the Bureau of Prisons), called for a “thorough, independent, and impartial investigation into recycling operations at [Bureau of Prisons] institutions.” Bloch characterized Bureau responses to the whistleblower charges as “unreasonable,” “inconsistent with documentary evidence,” and relying on “strained interpretations” of safety requirements.

Leroy Smith, the safety manager at Atwater Federal Prison, a maximum-security institution located just outside of Merced, California, originally came forward in December 2004 with documents showing that computer terminal disassembly plants were spewing particles of heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium, over inmates and civilian prison staff. Smith’s lawyer, Mary Dryovage of San Francisco, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) today called on the Justice Department Office of Inspector General to immediately open a probe into health and safety violations.

“The Bureau of Prisons scapegoats its employees while UNICOR makes millions off the backs of the staff and inmates who are being poisoned by exposure to toxics,” said Dryovage, who also successfully represented Smith in a complaint of reprisal for raising safety concerns at Atwater. Smith has since accepted a transfer to another prison.

The federal prison industry authority, called UNICOR, has operated a computer recycling plant at Atwater since 2002 but the operation has been plagued by shutdowns and safety problems, including:

  • Particles of heavy metals are released when inmate workers break glass cathode ray tubes during shipping and disassembling. Beyond the prison environment, staff going home with toxic dust on their clothes risk spreading contamination to their families;
  • The UNICOR factory at Atwater had an open food service in the contaminated work areas; and
  • Prison staff and inmates were not informed of health risks or given training on handling contaminants. Blood and urine monitoring is incomplete.

Six other federal prisons have similar computer recycling plants. Even though test results at two of the prisons, Elkton, Ohio, and Texarkana, Texas, found similarly excessive exposure levels, the Bureau has declined to investigate conditions at these facilities.

“Today hundreds of prison supervisors and hundreds more inmates who worked in the computer recycling plants have real and growing health questions but no answers from the Bureau of Prisons, despite a year-long review,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

While the Bureau of Prisons review of Smith’s whistleblower disclosure was begun under Attorney General John Ashcroft, it was completed by his successor, Alberto Gonzales, who signed off on the review that was deemed inadequate by the Special Counsel.


Read the Office of Special Counsel findings

See the original whistleblower disclosure of prison safety manager Leroy Smith

Look at Federal Bureau of Prisons’ admission of problems and promise to discipline staff

View the call for an independent investigation of the health and safety impacts of the prison computer recycling operations

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