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Report Finds Federal Prisoners Exposed to Toxic Metals in Recycling Jobs

A four-year study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), released in October 2010, found that prisoners and employees at ten federal prisons were exposed to hazardous metals and materials while handling electronic waste in recycling programs.

The study was initiated following complaints by Leroy Smith, Jr., a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) safety manager at USP Atwater in California. Federal investigators found examples of “serious misconduct,” including “carelessness or indifference” to prisoner safety in the electronics recycling programs at Atwater and other federal prisons, as well as “numerous violations of health, safety, and environmental laws, regulations, and BOP policies.” OIG investigators examined recycling programs at ten federal facilities, including Leavenworth, KS, Lewisburg, PA and Tucson, AZ.

The BOP, which operates prison industry programs through Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, has used prisoners to recycle computers, monitors and other electronic equipment since 1997. The recycling process can be dangerous because cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in computer monitors can contain up to five pounds of lead. The recycling process normally involved breaking the CRTs, which would release lead dust into the air. Smith, while safety manager at Atwater, became concerned in 2001 and 2002 about the airborne toxic dust. [See: PLN, July 2009, p.21; Jan. 2009, p.1; March 2007, p.1].

OIG investigators noted that prior to 2003, when recycling procedures were changed, prisoners had been exposed to levels of cadmium and lead “far higher” than allowed by federal workplace standards. The 433-page study also cited “numerous instances of staff misconduct and performance failures” that “included actions that endangered staff and inmates: dishonesty, dereliction of duty, and theft, among others.”

According to the OIG study, criminal prosecutions of BOP and UNICOR staff in Ohio and New Jersey were considered but were not pursued due to “various evidentiary, legal, and strategic concerns.” The OIG investigators recommended disciplinary action against several BOP and UNICOR officials, including Lawrence Novicky, general manager of UNICOR’s Recycling Business Group, and Atwater associate warden Samuel Randolph; however, most of the officials, including Novicky and Randolph, had already retired and no action could be taken.

Not surprisingly, Smith and others who were exposed to hazards in the UNICOR recycling programs called the BOP’s response inadequate. Smith’s attorney, Mary Dryovage of San Francisco, said BOP officials were “washing their hands” of prisoner health concerns. “There have been no repercussions for any of the wrongdoing,” she said, adding that Smith, despite receiving whistleblower status, had suffered negative career repercussions.

Although Smith filed suit against federal officials, the case was dismissed; an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit was dismissed in April 2010 for lack of prosecution. See: Smith v. United States, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 5:08-cv-00084-RS-AK. Smith, who is still employed with the BOP, had received an “outstanding whistleblower” award from the Office of Special Counsel in 2006.

Meanwhile, the BOP stated that “changes already implemented in our operations and the changes planned will ensure that all of our operations continue to operate as safely as possible,” according to spokeswoman Traci Billingsley. “We are committed to ensuring compliance with all applicable health, safety, and environmental requirements,” she added.

The UNICOR recycling programs are still in operation at various BOP facilities, including Atwater. In 2009, UNICOR workers reportedly processed 39 million pounds of electronic waste. See: “A Review of Federal Prison Industries’ Electronic-Waste Recycling Program,” U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of the Inspector General (Oct. 2010).

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Related legal case

Smith v. United States