Big-House Hazards

Prison recycling raises persistent questions

Deep within Tucson's federal pen, far from prying eyes, hammer-wielding inmates fill the air with shattering blows. Those convicts are demolishing castoff computers, under the auspices of a government-owned corporation. But questions about their work echo far beyond prison walls.

Questions such as: Where do cancer-causing computer parts end up? And just how protected are inmates and guards from dangerous toxins?

The first lingers with Jim Mikolaitis, managing engineer of Tucson's Los Reales Landfill, who's dispatching an environmental scientist to the prison for answers.

That second question pesters Tim DeBolt, western regional vice president for the Council of Prison Locals, a union representing federal prison guards. "We're definitely concerned about it," DeBolt says, adding that union officials in Tucson "are going to take another look (at the recycling operation) to make sure it's up to standards."

The Federal Correctional Institute-Tucson is among seven nationwide where about 1,000 inmates dismantle used computers for Unicor Inc., a branch of Federal Prison Industries, or FPI. Unicor's customers range from leading computer makers to state and local governments; Tucson clients include the University of Arizona. (For more information, see "High-Tech Chain Gang," Oct. 20.)

Health concerns first surfaced through a whistleblower at the United States Penitentiary-Atwater, in Merced, Calif. Shortly after becoming Atwater's safety manager in 2000, Leroy Smith noted what he considered inadequate protections for inmates and guards in the computer-dismantling area. In particular, manually breaking glass components and other parts released dangerous metals, including beryllium, lead, cadmium and barium. Exposure to those toxins can cause nervous system damage, and prostate and lung cancer. The amounts are not insubstantial; a single television or computer monitor contains up to four pounds of lead.

Smith's claims drew media attention, essentially cost him his job and played a role in the cancellation of prison contracts by Dell Inc. and the state of California. He also prompted a review of the Atwater operation, and an inspection by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which declared the program safe. But in later interviews, Smith complained that prison officials were given two weeks of notice before the OSHA inspection, allowing time to clean the computer area.

Smith has applied for federal whistleblower protection, and attempts to contact him were unsuccessful. "Mr. Smith's case is currently in litigation, and he is unable to comment at this time," says his attorney, Mary Dryovage of San Francisco. Dryovage says that Smith will likely transfer to the Tucson prison.

Since he came forward, similar safety concerns have been raised at federal prisons in Ohio and Texas. And a follow-up report by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons 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. In the report, BOP Director Harley Lappin 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.

The program also may pose a risk to Tucson, according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Used air filters from computer recycling areas are simply "thrown in the trash and go to your landfill," he says. "And they contain all kinds of things that aren't supposed to be in a general landfill."

That information was substantiated by a source close to the Atwater investigation, who spoke to the Tucson Weekly on the condition of anonymity. As recently as March, says the source, air filters from Atwater's computer recycling area "were found in trash cans at the prison, and the rest of them had already gone to the dump. A private lab did a test on those filters from swamp coolers and found that they contained lead and other deadly toxic chemicals."

FPI officials deny that the computer recycling program is a health hazard to prisons or surrounding communities. In an e-mail response to the Weekly, FPI spokesman Todd Baldau says that inmates wear protective gear and work in "an enclosed environment with negative air flow."

Baldau also writes, "All staff and inmates working at the FPI recycling factory at FCI-Tucson have had baseline blood and urine tests, and the institution complies with OSHA requirements, as well as with all applicable state and local environmental laws and regulations."

But if that's the case, such compliance is gauged solely by prisons scrutinizing themselves; OSHA has not inspected the Tucson recycling program, according to agency spokesman Roger Gayman in Phoenix.

Baldau goes on to describe FPI's "zero land-fill" policy: "Once all useable components have been mined from electronic equipment provided to FPI, all residual materials are recycled. Any toxic material is transferred to certified hazardous material processors for disposition. In disposing of this material, the certified processors must comply with all federal, state and local laws and regulations."

That apparently doesn't satisfy Jim Mikolaitis at Los Reales. "We have an environmental scientist who is going to be in contact with (the prison)," he says, "to make sure they fully understand our regulations. We will not be taking any hazardous waste, and we'll certainly make them fully aware of any regulatory implications of them disposing of waste here at the Los Reales Landfill."

Meanwhile, the BOP is protecting information about its program with a vengeance, says the Weekly source. "Their whole assumption is that the prisons are above the law. And they're tearing into anyone who thinks they can play the same game that Leroy Smith played."

That means prison guards may remain at risk--in more ways than one.

Meanwhile, inmates will continue their dangerous trade. "They are convicted criminals," says the source. "But they didn't sign up to get cancer, and most of them probably don't understand the repercussions of taking those jobs.

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