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UNICOR Unrest 

This prison program fails to communicate

There's a flourishing enterprise on South Wilmot Road that hums right along, despite murky ethics and potentially deadly working conditions that could sink any other business.

Instead, the computer recycling program within the Federal Correctional Institute-Tucson artfully dodges scrutiny--while plumping its already beefy bottom line.

The program is run by UNICOR, a government-owned corporation which oversees such operations in seven penitentiaries across the nation. UNICOR customers range from schools to private companies, and it boasts a business model most competitors could only dream of: lax health enforcement and a captive workforce making from 23 cents to about $1.15 per hour, with no benefits. For those measly sums, UNICOR's inmate-employees are compelled to bust apart monitors with ball peen hammers, rather than using safer but far pricier equipment now considered the industry standard.

While extremely cost-effective, the hammer approach also releases toxic dust containing such heavy metals as beryllium, cadmium and lead. So while this vocation does little to provide inmates with marketable skills, it may leave them with debilitating conditions ranging from cancer to kidney disease--risks recently detailed in a scathing report by federal investigators. (See "Safety Shell Game," Currents, April 27, and "Safety Stand," Currents, April 20.)

Not surprisingly, UNICOR doesn't rush to highlight these concerns to customers such as the University of Arizona. Laurie Rodriguez, materials manager for UA Procurement and Contracting Services, says her office learned of UNICOR "at a university surplus-property conference, where they had a representative. Now we end up sending them (scrap) computers about twice a year.

"I wasn't aware of the safety problems," she says. "When the UNICOR outfit moved to Tucson, we thought that was closer than having to pay for shipping to (a recycler in) Casa Grande. But we do have that different avenue we can take if we think they aren't going to work out for us."

If the UA were to drop its UNICOR contract, it would join the University of Colorado, Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University and computer-maker Dell, all of which have severed ties to the program over safety and hazardous-waste issues.

But health risks aren't the only concern. Private companies have also complained of unfair competition from this recycling giant and its captive work force. That grumbling eventually led to changes in the law, reducing UNICOR's monopoly over government contracts for equipment it sells.

Meanwhile, UNICOR has been criticized for ignoring an executive order, issued by President Bill Clinton, requiring that excess government computers be donated to disadvantaged school children and nonprofit organizations. Instead, the program continues selling thousands of components on the open market. So brazen was this flaunting that, at one point, the U.S. General Services Administration ordered a moratorium on government computers being sent to UNICOR.

But even then, UNICOR could count on a wealth of other customers. That's according to Bill Wilson, former president of the National Association of State Agencies for Surplus Property. "Computers that could be placed into public and private schools ... and the donation program are going to certain private/commercial vendors, who have developed a financial relationship" with UNICOR, Nelson told Wired News.

And those relationships have proven fruitful. Each year, UNICOR handles about 44 million pounds of equipment, ranking it among the nation's top processors of used electronics. But even with a tripling of sales since 2002, the program faces increasing competition. Given that Americans currently own about 2 billion individual high-tech products, and discard some 7 million tons of them each year, the electronics recycling industry is expected to skyrocket.

Meanwhile, the many criticisms of this federal program only heighten questions about the goals of inmate labor. On its slick Web site, UNICOR notes that "Inmates who worked in prison industries or completed vocational and apprenticeship programs were 24 percent less likely to recidivate and 14 percent more likely to be gainfully employed."

According to Gordon Lafer, however, there's a vast difference between vocational or apprenticeship programs, and convicts busting up computers with hammers. "Training is not the real agenda," says the political scientist with the Labor Education and Research Center, at the University of Oregon. "A lot of things people do in prison are things that it would hard to get a job doing on the outside.

"But at the same time, as these prison labor programs have grown, education programs and drug and alcohol programs have been cut. So if you really want to say, 'Let's position people to make a clean living when they get out,' you aren't doing that.

"This program's goal is to make a little bit of money and to keep prisoners occupied," he says. "Sometimes the prisoners like it, because the alternative is to be in their cells 24 hours a day. And corrections officers like it, because it keeps the prisoners occupied, tired and less likely to cause trouble. But none of it is run as a training program."

And Lafer calls that a mistake. "The better policy," he says, "would be to have education--to have real training."

In the meantime, UNICOR has taken a circle-the-wagons approach to criticism. That includes attacks on its workplace conditions, recently highlighted when a safety manager at the federal prison in Merced, Calif., went public with his concerns. Leroy Smith's disclosures eventually sparked an investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that reviews whistleblowers' complaints.

In a blistering April report, Special Counsel Scott Bloch wrote that prison managers "recklessly, and in some cases knowingly, exposed inmates and staff to unsafe levels of lead, cadmium and other hazardous materials over a period of years."

Apparently, UNICOR hasn't changed its ways; Smith is currently a safety specialist at Tucson's federal penitentiary, where his work is still being meddled with. "When I started doing inspections here, and supported the air sampling to be done, a UNICOR supervisor came in," Smith says. "He said he's now being asked for monthly safety inspections to be sent to Larry Novicky." (Novicky is general manager of UNICOR's Electronics Group.)

"If I personally recommend something to be implemented, (the supervisor) is to call Larry Novicky in the central office and let him know," Smith says. "I was told to take no action until they review my recommendations and determine whether they are going to comply or not."

That will hobble attempts to make the worksite safer, he says.

When contacted by the Tucson Weekly, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons/UNICOR public information office refused to comment for this story. However, we later reached a somewhat startled Larry Novicky. "I really don't know what you should tell your readers," Novicky said, before referring us back the public information office.

More by Tim Vanderpool

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