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Federal Prisoners Enlisted for Dangerous Computer Refurbishing

Federal Prisoners Enlisted for Dangerous
Computer Refurbishing

by Lonnie Burton

In February 2002, it was announced that prisoners at a new federal prison in California will soon be partnering with companies such as Dell, IBM and Hewlett-Packard in a program that will refurbish and recycle used computers. The U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater, CA will employ about 350 prisoners in a program that has been called "scandalous" and a "high-tech chain gang."

The Atwater facility, which is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ). The USDOJ and UNICOR, which is the trade name of the Federal Prison Industries, have teamed up with Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computers to put prisoners to work recycling obsolete computers. But some believe the partnership was formed out of necessity rather than convenience.

The components of these old computers, such as CRT's (Cathode Ray Tubes), plastics, and wiring will expose the prisoners to an array of toxic chemicals and metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and flame retardants, among others.

"Atwater is just the latest and probably worst" example of exploiting prisoners in the name of providing job skills, said Ted Smith, Executive Director of the Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition, an advocacy group. "It's pretty clear that it's a way to use a low wage, but really it's an involuntary servitude type of approach to dealing with e-waste, and I think that's pretty scandalous."

A typical computer contains 4 to 6 pounds of lead. And the remainder of materials in these old computers are so dangerous that governments from Europe to Japan have banned them from landfills. California bans the CRT monitors from landfills, but the United States as a whole has seen little governmental action in regulating this hazardous waste.

"The U.S. is the main global laggard in this whole issue. Since we have refused to embrace producer responsibility, we're relying on prison labor instead," Smith added.

Another issue that concerns many critics is the fact that prison labor is unfair both to prisoners and to the private sector due to wages that are minuscule compared to those outside prison gates. Unicor general manager Larry Novicky defends the low cost of prisoner wages by noting the extra security costs and the sheer volume of bureaucratic red-tape.

"My cost structure is so different from the private sector. I have security costs they could never, never imagine," said Novicky. "My staff-to-inmate ratio is so different from a foreman-general worker ratio. So overall, we're market competitive."

Wages earned from working in the recycling program doesn't all make it to the prisoners. The money actually goes into an "inmate responsibility" fund, which goes to pay child support, alimony, court costs, and provides money to prisoners upon release. Only a small portion of the money earned is allowed to be spent by the prisoners at the prison commissary.

Job security also seems like it won't be a problem for the prisoners. The National Safety Council (NSC) says that 20 million PCs have become obsolete each year in the United States since the late 1990s. The NSC says it's just a matter of finding enough space for all the unwanted computers, which are laden with so many toxic materials that improper disposal could cause serious health hazards.

Novicky says that although the prisoner labor is voluntary, "We work them very hard, and they enjoy it."

But that still doesn't solve the health hazard and toxic waste problem.

Computers that cannot be cleaned up and refurbished for resale are instead "mined" for materials such as glass, plastics and copper wiring. The proximity of the prisoners to these materials is what has critics and environmentalists concerned.

"We have issues with that," said Robin Schneider, director of Campaign for the Environment, a non-profit environmental group. "We're working with recyclers to develop a true-stewardship pledge, so that if prison labor is used, there's a living wage and decent working conditions. At a number of recycling facilities, there are high levels of toxic exposure."

Michell Glaze, spokeswoman for Dell defended the company's use of prison slave labor saying the low wages allowed the company to recycle computers cheaply. The same reason 80% of e-waste destined for recycling in the U.S. is shipped to third world countries in Asia, mostly China, India and Pakistan.

On January 9, 2003, activists protested Dell's use of prisoner labor at the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. Dell also uses Texas prisoners at the Lockhart facility to manufacture computer keyboards.

Even though Glaze defended Dell's use of prison slave labor the computer giant dropped its contract with UNICOR on July 3, 2003. "Did we hear some comments from customers and stakeholders" Absolutely," said Dell spokesman, Bryant Hilton. "But we didn't make a decision based on pressure," Hilton stated.

Source: CNET, Post Intelligencer, Associated Press

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