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Prisoners Exposed to Toxic Dust at UNICOR Recycling Factories

Federal Prison Industries (FPI), the largest legal sweatshop in America, has jeopardized the lives and safety of untold numbers of prisoners and staff working in its recycling factories, according to a preliminary report in an investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and an evaluation issued by the Federal Occupational Health Service in October 2008.

FPI, a wholly-owned government corporation commonly known as UNICOR, was founded in 1934 with the aim of rehabilitating federal prisoners through job training that could be used to increase their employability upon release from prison. Over the years, however, UNICOR has moved away from its original mission; it now focuses more on taking advantage of its lucrative monopoly on providing goods and services to government agencies while using cut-rate prison labor.

Existing federal law requires federal agencies to look to UNICOR first for goods and services they may need. This lack of competition with the private sector, combined with low wages for prisoner workers, has been a boon for UNICOR. In fiscal year 2007, the prison industry netted $853 million in sales and $45.8 million in profit.

On Sept. 14, 2006, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Federal Prison Industries Competition in Contracting Act, which would have eliminated UNICOR’s monopoly on offering goods and services to federal government agencies. The bill also would have increased UNICOR wages for prisoners to minimum wage by September 30, 2009. The bill failed to pass the Senate.

Over the past decade, electronics recycling (e-waste) has become an increasingly important component of UNICOR’s operations, though it is still the smallest part of UNICOR’s business in terms of sales. First started in 1994 at the Federal Prison Camp (FPC) in Marianna, Florida, female prisoners would unload truckloads of computers each day and break them down for parts that could be reused or sold, such as processors or cathode ray tubes (CRTs). Often the computers or monitors would have to be broken apart with hammers to retrieve salvageable parts, which released a thick cloud of dust.

“It looked just like pollen,” said Freda Cobb, a former prison employee at FPC Marianna. “At the end of the day, we would go back to our cars and sort of laugh because we could write letters on our hood and on our back.”

None of the prisoners or staff were supplied with masks, gloves, coveralls or other personal protective equipment. Some prisoner workers and employees raised questions about possible health hazards, but “they told us not to worry about it,” Cobb said. “Nobody wanted to hear us.”

UNICOR’s recycling business expanded over the next decade to seven other facilities, with each new e-waste factory using the same unsafe work practices. From fiscal year 2003 to 2005, UNICOR processed over 120 million pounds of e-waste. Prisoners would break CRTs inside televisions and computer monitors without masks, gloves or other protective gear, exposing them to high levels of lead and cadmium from the release of heavy metal dust. In another operation, processors were removed from circuit boards using a de-soldering process that released lead fumes.

Lead can cause severe damage to nervous and reproductive systems, including miscarriages, stated John McKernan, an industrial hygienist at the Centers for Disease Control. Cadmium can cause lung damage and bone disease, and has been linked to cancer.

In March 2004, LeRoy Smith, the Safety Manager at United States Penitentiary (USP) Atwater, went public about the dangers that prisoners and staff were experiencing at UNICOR’s recycling facilities. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP), however, ignored Smith’s warnings. He was transferred to Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Tucson after going public. Smith has since filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint; he has also experienced symptoms of hazardous material exposure that include anxiety, headaches, fatigue, memory lapses, skin lesions, and circulatory and respiratory problems.

“Instead of behaving responsibly, the Bureau of Prisons has looked the other way, while the federal prison industry authority, UNICOR, opened additional ‘computer-recycling’ facilities without proper health safeguards in place,” said Mary Dryovage, an attorney who formerly represented Smith.

In April 2006, the Director of the BOP, Harley Lappin, asked the OIG to conduct a review of UNICOR’s recycling activities. In conjunction with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Federal Occupational Health Service (FOH) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) – a division of the Public Health Service within the Department of Health and Human Services – the investigation has focused on recycling activities at three BOP institutions: FCI Elkton in Ohio, FCI Texarkana in Texas, and USP Atwater in California. [See: PLN, March 2007, p.1].

A preliminary NIOSH report related to FCI Elkton, released on July 16, 2008, confirmed many of the dangers first reported by Smith. From 1997 until 2001, glass breaking of CRTs at Elkton was evidently done without “respiratory protection used or any type of engineering control in place to minimize exposures,” the report found.

In 2001, a “sawdust collection system” was installed at the UNICOR factory and some prisoners began using respiratory protection. It was not until April 2003 that a glass breaking room was constructed to contain the harmful heavy metal dust.

Fitted with vinyl curtains hanging from the ceiling, a ventilation discharge area, local exhaust ventilation system and a “clean area” where prisoners can suit and unsuit into coveralls and other protective equipment, the glass breaking room was supposed to eliminate the exposure problems caused by prior unsafe work practices.

Yet despite those improvements, problems continued to persist. During a filter change-out process, filters were removed and cleaned by vacuuming, shaking or banging them on the floor, causing a “thick cloud of dust” within the glass breaking room. Prisoners were exposed to “450 times the concentration adopted by OSHA as the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for cadmium and over 50 times the PEL for lead” during this process, according to the preliminary report.

While most of the heavy metal contamination was confined to the glass breaking room, lead and cadmium residues were found on work surfaces outside that area, where workers were not wearing protective equipment. In one section of the factory, one dust sample was as high as “16% lead.”

This, among other noted deficiencies, led investigators to conclude that “the current [glass-breaking operation] is a significant improvement, but can be further enhanced to limit exposure to those performing glass breaking as well as limiting the migration of lead and cadmium from the room into other areas.”

The NIOSH report concluded that “electronic recycling at FCI Elkton appears to have been performed from 1997 until May 2003 without adequate engineering controls, respiratory protections, medical surveillance, or industrial hygiene monitoring.” The extent of worker and staff exposure to toxic dust could not be determined because “medical surveillance that has been carried out among inmates and staff has not complied with OSHA standards.”

The report called for “prompt but well-coordinated” remediation to address “legacy contamination at the factory,” and made several specific recommendations that included: 1) Ensuring full compliance with all applicable OSHA standards; 2) contracting with an occupational medicine physician familiar with OSHA regulations to oversee a medial surveillance program; 3) Performing a detailed job hazard analysis prior to beginning any new operations or making changes to existing operations; and 4) appointing a union safety and health representative, plus ensuring that prisoner workers “have a way to voice their concerns about and ideas for improving workplace safety and health.”

On June 27, 2008, all of FCI Elkton’s recycling factories were shut down for a thorough clean-up. It was unclear when the facilities will re-open, according to Traci Billingsley, a spokesperson for the BOP.

Subsequently, an 87-page assessment by the Federal Occupational Health Service regarding environmental, safety and health issues related to UNICOR e-waste recycling operations at FCI Elkton was released on Oct. 10, 2008. That report, which was prepared for the OIG, dealt with practices and working conditions at the facility from 2003 to the present.

The FOH report found that UNICOR had implemented measures to control exposure to toxic heavy metals, and “since 2003 ... has made major improvements in engineering controls and its policies regarding the usage of personal protective equipment.” Current measured lead and cadmium exposure levels were described as “minimal.”

Further improvements to limit exposure in the glass breaking room were suggested, as well as hearing protection for workers due to a noise hazard. UNICOR had complied with previous recommendations by improving the filter change-out protocol and retaining an occupational physician to improve medical evaluations of recycling workers and staff.

Still, the past health and safety violations at Elkton remained a concern, and the report noted that according to an EPA inspection the UNICOR recycling program “had not adequately evaluated its wastewater, air emissions, and hazardous waste streams for compliance with applicable environmental standards ....” The report concluded with a number of recommendations for improvements.

Federal investigators next turned their attention to recycling operations at FCI Texarkana. While investigators have yet to issue a report regarding the UNICOR recycling factory at that facility, preliminary indicators seem to suggest the existence of prior unsafe work practices similar to those found at Elkton.

According to one prisoner, glass breaking operations at FCI Texarkana from 2001 to 2003 were conducted without masks or other protective equipment. All glass breaking is now done at the satellite prison camp.

The UNICOR factory at the camp, as at Elkton, is now fitted with a glass breaking room. Prisoners who work in the glass breaking room receive an extra $1.00 per shift on top of their regular pay, which ranges from $.23 to $1.25 an hour.

The extra dollar was not enough for one prisoner employed in the glass breaking area after investigators visited the camp. “I didn’t feel like what we were doing was safe,” the unidentified prisoner said, “so I quit.”

Although all glass breaking operations are supposed to be done in the glass breaking room, some prisoners reported that glass breaking is occurring in the general work area, too.

Before televisions and monitors are sent to the glass breaking room, certain parts must be removed. Rather than unscrewing these parts without damaging the CRTs, some prisoners break the parts off, which causes the glass CRT to break and release lead and cadmium dust into the air. According to one prisoner, this occurs at least ten times a day. To make matters worse, prisoners in the general work area are not required to wear masks or other protective gear.

When asked why the UNICOR staff don’t prevent this from happening, one prisoner put it bluntly: “The guards don’t give a fuck. They don’t care as long as the work gets done. They sit in their office laughing, talking on the phone.”

U.S. Representative Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich) has low expectations for the OIG’s investigation into UNICOR operations. “It will result in nothing,” he said. “We rail against Chinese prison labor, and what you’ve got here is a situation where our prisons have exposed our workers to low wages and dangerous working environments, with the full support of the Justice Department and with the full support of the White House.”

While the OIG’s investigation remains ongoing, twenty-six current and former prisoners, UNICOR staff, their family members and visitors to the FPC Marianna recycling factory have sued the U.S. Department of Justice, BOP and UNICOR, claiming they did not do enough to protect them from harmful metals and chemicals. See: Smith v. United States, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 5:08-cv-00084-RS/AK.

“I never realized,” said Freda Cobb, a former BOP guard at Marianna who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “We never put it together.” Cobb has suffered from digestive problems, acute respiratory symptoms, short-term memory loss, muscle pain, kidney and liver problems, heart problems, internal bleeding and skin lesions. She was forced to retire from FPC Marianna in September 2004 for medical reasons.

Traci Hendrix, a 39-year-old former prisoner who worked in the recycling factory at Marianna, is considering joining the suit. “We didn’t have nothing to put on our faces, and we just breathed and coughed all day,” she said.

Hendrix first learned of the hazards caused by the toxic dust after another former prisoner told her that she, like Hendrix, had suffered a miscarriage after leaving prison. “It seemed like everyone that was working with me had a miscarriage,” said Hendrix.

On August 1, 2008, Tanya Smith, a former prison employee at Marianna and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, died. The exact cause of her death has not yet been determined, but it’s believed to be linked to her work at the facility. She had severe health problems that had forced her retirement from the BOP, including systemic lupus, blood clots, kidney failure, digestive problems, and heart and respiratory disease.

“We surely believe federal prisons started all of this,” said Smith’s mother, Doris Baker, who lived with her daughter. “We all believe that. Won’t nobody admit it.” Smith’s death is among 12 others that attorneys point to as stemming from recycling operations at Marianna.

Interestingly, two of the defendants in the lawsuit, Joe McNeal and James Bailey, who were employed by UNICOR, agreed to sign releases and become plaintiffs in the case, “because they and their family members suffer from some of the symptoms associated with exposure to the toxic substances alleged to have been produced by [the Marianna] recycling program.” The lawsuit is still pending; the government defendants have raised a defense of sovereign immunity.

Even family members of BOP and UNICOR staff are potentially at risk. Staff “may have inadvertently exposed their families to heavy metals by wearing their dust-laden work clothes home,” wrote S. Randall Humm, investigative counsel for the OIG.

That, according to Professor Tee L. Guidotti, an environmental and occupational health expert at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services, never should have happened.

“They wore their work clothes home? Yikes. That has been known for years to be a set-up for exposing children,” he said.

Several BOP employees had also purchased equipment from UNICOR for their personal use, including computers and monitors, that may have been contaminated with toxic heavy metal dust.

Despite these problems, and ongoing investigations into workplace conditions at other UNICOR recycling factories, UNICOR continues to operate eight recycling centers that employ approximately 1,200 prisoners. This represents only a small part of the prison industry’s workforce. Systemwide, as of Sept. 30, 2007, UNICOR maintained operations at 110 factories located at 79 BOP facilities involving 23,152 prisoner workers.

One has to wonder whether the documented safety, health and environmental workplace violations at UNICOR’s e-waste recycling programs routinely occurred at the prison industry’s other operations.

Sources: ABC News; The Dothan Eagle;; Fort Worth Weekly;;; NIOSH preliminary report on work conditions at FCI Elkton (July 16, 2008); FOH report: “Evaluation of Environmental, Safety and Health Information Related to Current UNICOR e-Waste Recycling Operations at FCI Elkton” (Oct. 10, 2008)

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Related legal case

Smith v. United States