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Hi-Tech Chain Gang 

Is the federal prison a toxic dump?

Shoved to Tucson's scruffy fringes, the federal prison on South Wilmot Road is a clenched compound rising from bare-knuckle desert. But within its razor-wire membrane is the captive buzz of cheap industry, where inmates--some earning only 20 cents an hour--may be exposing themselves and prison guards to toxins from computer recycling.

At the same time, it's possible that some some by-products of their dangerous vocation are arriving at our city landfill.

Despite safety problems with similar operations at other prisons, however, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not even inspected the Tucson recycling program, according to OSHA spokesman Roger Gayman in Phoenix.

It remains unclear why inspections haven't taken place; nearly a week after being contacted by this newspaper, Federal Bureau of Prison officials have not provided information about the Tucson computer recycling program.

The medium security Federal Correctional Institution-Tucson is one of seven facilities across the United States with such operations. The also list includes far-flung prisons from Elkton, Ohio, and Lewisburg, Pa., to Texarkana, Texas. Administered by a branch of the Federal Bureau of Prisons called Federal Prison Industries, the program's business contracts are handled by a government-owned corporation called Unicor. Customers have included state and local governments, along with computer industry giants such as Dell Inc.

Under these outside contracts, Unicor uses about 1,000 hammer-wielding prisoners to dismantle used computers, which releases dangerous metals including beryllium, lead, cadmium and barium. Exposure to those toxins can cause nervous-system damage, and prostate or lung cancer. Nor are their amounts insubstantial; a single television or computer monitor can contain up to four pounds of lead.

By contrast, modern recycling systems use automated crushers and sophisticated environmental controls. So long as prisons avoid investing in this equipment--and cling to their primitive processes--inmates will likely continue facing unacceptable health risks, critics charge. "Prisoners are one of the most vulnerable populations in the United States," says Sheila Davis, executive director of California's Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "Now they are being asked to process large amounts of dangerous material without being fully protected. That is just wrong."

When her group targeted the prison recycling program in Atwater, Calif., they started "getting quite a few letters from prisoners saying they were being exposed to hazardous materials and asking for information," Davis says. "They were using sledgehammers to smash cathode ray tubes. And whatever system they're using at Atwater is probably very similar to what they're using at other facilities," including FCI-Tucson.

Among those letters, one inmate reported that "Even when I wear the paper mask, I blow out black mucus from my nose every day. The black particles in my nose and throat look as if I am a heavy smoker. Cuts and abrasions happen all the time. Of these the open wounds are exposed to the dirt and dust and many do not heal as quickly as normal wounds."

Still, these risks were disclosed only after one worried prison official went public with his concerns. Leroy Smith was safety manager at federal facility in Phoenix before assuming that role at the Atwater prison in 2000. A year later, he requested heightened safety training for computer dismantlers, and asked that eating areas be relocated away from computer dismantling areas.

Due in part to public pressure from Smith's disclosures, and following a scathing report by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, both Dell and the State of California canceled their contracts with Unicor.

Attempts to contact Smith were unsuccessful. His attorney, Mary Dryovage, didn't return a call to her San Francisco office seeking comment.

But according to The Modesto Bee, Smith reported dust from toxic metals drifting throughout the recycling factory. The newspaper also noted that Smith's own records detail growing metal concentrations in prison workers from September 2002 to March 2003. One inmate's lead levels rose from 3 micrograms per liter to 9 micrograms per liter, while another experienced barium level increases from 59 micrograms per liter to 120 during that time. While by themselves these levels aren't considered hazardous, Smith voiced concerns that those metals could eventually concentrate in inmates' bodies.

Because of his complaints, last year the independent Office of Special Counsel prompted the Federal Bureau of Prisons to investigate Atwater's recycling program. A subsequent BOP report substantiated many of his allegations, noting that inmates in the computer recycling area were subjected to unsafe levels of cadmium and lead for at least 80 days. The report was signed on June 13 by BOP Director Harley Lappin, who cited "a substantial likelihood that a violation of law, rule or regulation and a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety has occurred." Disciplinary action against several prison officials is pending.

Since Smith became a whistleblower, his allegations have been echoed at the prisons in Ohio and Texas. But inaction at both facilities suggests that no serious inquiry will take place at FCI-Tucson. That's according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "We drew attention to the fact that (BOP) didn't even seem interested enough to investigate those two," he says.

Ruch charges that used air filters are simply "thrown in the trash and go to your landfill. And they contain all kinds of things that aren't supposed to be in a general landfill." At the same time, he says ventilation in computer recycling areas is often poor, and that inmates break glass cathode tubes while they're still boxed, which may prevent glass shards from spreading but does little to reduce exposure to toxic metals.

In all, Ruch calls the recycling program a cultural throwback, "hearkening to the old days when inmate labor involved prisoners and hammers."

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