Safety Shell Game

Government agencies keep passing the buck over prison recycling hazards

From behind prison walls, they are witnesses to a toxic trade that's been underway for years.

And they are symbols of a system that has utterly failed to protect them.

Seven federal prisons, including Tucson's Correctional Institute, participate in one of the nation's largest computer-recycling operations. Run by a government-owned corporation called Unicor, it provides inexpensive recycling services to commercial businesses, schools and other public agencies.

But low costs come at a high price: Unicor oversees about 1,000 hammer-wielding inmates, who smash up components in a cheap but primitive process that also releases toxins ranging from beryllium and lead to cadmium and barium. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety Administration or OSHA, such exposure can cause nervous system damage, cancer, kidney disease, and even death.

People working in the program--prisoners and guards--know these risks firsthand. "Even when I wear the paper mask, I blow out black mucus from my nose every day," one inmate wrote in a letter to California's Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "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."

Or consider Charlie Carter, a corrections staffer at an Ohio prison recycling operation for seven years. Carter watched convicts busting apart some 1,000 computers a day--and leaving layers of dangerous dust in their wake. "It was all on our uniforms, in our nose, in our mouth, ears, hair," he told San Francisco's KPIX Channel 5 in July. When Carter approached his boss, he says was told "there were no hazards, that he had checked on it, that there were no issues about it."

Less than a year later, Carter would disclose having a brain tumor and boils all over his body.

It's likely such operations would have clamored on in perilous obscurity if not for a courageous prison official named Leroy Smith. As safety manager of the Atwater prison in Merced, Calif., Smith repeatedly warned superiors of unsafe working conditions. And twice, he shut down Atwater's recycling program over health concerns. By January 2005, he had filed a complaint with OSHA. But five months later, the safety agency gave Atwater a clean bill of health.

A frustrated Smith finally contacted the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that scrutinizes whistleblowers' complaints. And in an April 3 report to President Bush, Special Counsel Scott Bloch urged a "thorough, independent, and impartial investigation into computer recycling activities at Bureau of Prisons institutions." (See "Safety Stand," Currents, April 20.)

"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," wrote Bloch.

This stunning rebuttal to the OSHA findings--and to a shoddy internal probe by the Bureau of Prisons itself--raised a sharp response. "The BOP strongly disagrees with OSC's report," Bureau spokeswoman Traci Billingsley wrote in an e-mail Tucson Weekly. "We are confident that every one of our computer recycling factories is currently in full and complete compliance with applicable laws and regulations."

But to Smith, reasons behind the discrepancies were obvious. First, the Bureau of Prisons had little incentive to scrutinize itself. And OSHA gave Atwater officials at least two weeks' notice of the pending inspection--ample time to tidy the recycling area. "I don't know of any other federal agency that OSHA will do that for," he says.

Christopher Lee is acting administrator for OSHA's Region 9, which includes Arizona. From his San Francisco office, he denies any favoritism for the Bureau of Prisons.

At Atwater, "we did various types of sampling and we took wipe samples off of surfaces," he says. Inspectors also "did what we call direct reading instrumentation and took some air samples. Ultimately, they didn't find any violation of OSHA standards."

Lee also defends the early inspection notice given Atwater officials. "There are very limited circumstances where we can give advance notice to an employer," he says. "But because of the (prison) security requirements, we are required to notify them, and they do a background check on the investigator."

Smith calls that "kind of funny, because (the Bureau of Prisons) doesn't require background checks from any other federal agency. We don't even do checks on the local fire department" when they're called to the prison.

Either way, "if you only have one to three staff (members) that need background checks, that can be done within a day," he says.

So the question lingers: What's driving this lax safety policy towards prisons? According to OSHA spokesman Frank Meilinger, it's not pressure from Unicor. "OSHA won't allow its investigations to be influenced in any way," he says. "To do so would jeopardize the integrity of the agency."

Others say it's part of a deeper, systemic flaw. Among them is Gordon Lafer, a political scientist with the Labor Education and Research Center, at the University of Oregon in Eugene. While corrections officers are protected by federal guidelines--including OSHA--Lafer says that prisoners are not. "That's one of the key safety problems with prison labor--none of the regulations that apply to the rest of us apply (to prisoners). Not workman's compensation, or any other factors that compel outside employers to maintain a safe worksite."

At the same time, he says "it's not all that uncommon" for OSHA to notify even private companies of pending inspections. "And even if (OSHA inspectors) find violations, they tend to work out an agreement with an employer to modify what ever the problem is. Then they'll come back and re-inspect. And if they find that the problem hasn't been fixed, they'll give them another six months.

"It's very lax," Lafer says. "And the fines--when there are fines--tend to be bargained down to a few thousand bucks. So there's not a big incentive" to improve worksite safety.

All of which doesn't bode well for the prison recycling program here in Tucson, where Leroy Smith recently became lead safety specialist. And in a curious coincidence, Tucson's penitentiary is now slated for an OSHA inspection, the first in nearly four years.

But Smith isn't optimistic. Instead, he says OSHA and prison officials are just playing more games. "They don't want to look at the real issue, which is that we have staff and inmates who are seriously sick."