U.S. Inmates Exposed to Toxic E-Waste

  • by Peter Boaz (washington)
  • Inter Press Service

An investigation by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) shows that e-waste health hazards were known, but concealed by prison industry officials. In one instance, officials disabled a factory's fire alarm system for three years so that it would not be set off by clouds of toxic dust.

Inmates faced the greatest health risk from breaking the glass of cathode ray tubes, which contain between two and five pounds of lead each.

'I think the report on prison e-waste validates what the prison worker and NGOs have been saying for many years — that there is a very serious problem with prison e-waste operations, particularly with worker and inmate exposures to toxic chemicals,' Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, told IPS.

Federal Prison Industries (FPI), a government corporation known by its trade name UNICOR, started the recycling of computers, monitors, printers and other electronics in federal prisons in 1997.

In 2001, Leroy Smith, a former California prison safety manager, began raising alarms about the effects of the metal dust on individuals.

But even after UNICOR's Recycling Business Group was made aware of the poor conditions, the corporation was slow to make improvements, failing to answer promptly safety requests that interfered with business priorities, the report says.

The OIG launched an investigation into the programme in 2006 at the request of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and others. It uncovered a culture at UNICOR 'that did not sufficiently value worker safety and environmental protection'.

'In the long tradition of prison labour, these operations employed inmates with hammers but instead of rocks they were breaking computer components with no containment or protective equipment,' said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

'Coated in toxic dust, prison staff and inmates worked for years, in many cases trailing heavy metals back to their homes and cellblocks,' he said.

Further investigation by the OIG revealed instances of staff misconduct and performance failures that endangered staff and inmates. Citing evidence of dishonesty, dereliction of duty, and theft, the report concluded that 11 UNICOR and BOP employees were deserving of further investigation.

The OIG referred the potential criminal conduct to the Environmental Crimes Section in DOJ's Environmental and Natural Resource Division in 2007, but no action was initiated because of 'various evidentiary, legal, and strategic concerns'.

Most of the employees in question have now retired without sanction, according to PEER.

'It appears that no responsible official will be held to account for what happened here and this fat report will simply sit on a shelf,' Ruch said. 'If these violations had been committed by a private business, people would be going to prison but here they still run the prisons.'

In light of the recent negative findings, the OIG report concludes that in 2009, with limited exceptions, UNICOR's e- waste operations reached federal standards.

But questions surrounding electronic waste management still loom large.

Last month, two U.S. representatives introduced the Responsible Electronic Recycling Act of 2010, which calls for an effective ban on exporting e-waste to developing nations.

The U.S. exports the majority of its e-waste to places like China, India, Nigeria and Ghana, where recycling practices are terribly damaging to human health and the environment.

'We have suspected that e-waste from UNICOR was being exported, and this was also confirmed by this report,' Kyle told IPS. 'I don't think the conclusion here is that we should export more e-waste because of the atrocious conditions inside prison recycling plants.'

'Instead, we think that the Department of Justice should get out of the e-waste business altogether. This is a very toxic, dangerous business, and it's always going to be a problem to have that kind of business run inside the prisons, since the oversight needed just seems impossible in a prison setting.'

She noted that, 'Prisons do not allow unannounced OSHA [Occupational Health and Safety Administration] inspections, and the inmates don't have all the same rights as workers as private sector employers. Plus, UNICOR's e-waste operations undermine the private recyclers, who can't compete with a company that only pays $1.23 per hour and no insurance or worker's compensation.'

Despite the new OIG report, U.S. legislation continues to dedicate more effort to managing its own waste products. This latest bill intends to create thousands of U.S. jobs and reduce the environmental and human risk of e-waste by adhering to proper standards.

'Why are we using taxpayer money to undermine jobs in the recycling industry? And then poisoning those inmates in the process? It doesn't make sense,' Kyle said. 'We should be taking steps to promote domestic recycling, and to create jobs in this sector. The federal legislation would bring back many disassembly jobs that we've already shipped overseas.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service