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America's Slave Labor
By Christopher Moraff
In These Times
Wednesday 17 January 2007
Inmates are being forced to work in toxic "e-waste" sweatshops.
U.S. prisoners working for a computer-recycling operation run by
Federal Prison Industries (FPI) are being exposed to a toxic cocktail of
hazardous chemicals through their prison jobs while efforts by some prison
officials to protect them have been met with stonewalling and subterfuge.
Since 1994, FPI has used inmates to disassemble electronic waste
(e-waste) - the detritus of obsolete computers, televisions and related
electronics goods - for recycling. According to a new report, "Toxic
Sweatshops" - published jointly by the Texas Campaign for the Environment,
California-based Computer TakeBack Campaign and the Prison Activist Resource
Center - the waste contains high levels of arsenic, selenium, mercury, lead,
dioxins and beryllium - all considered dangerous by the Environmental
The report follows three years of mounting scrutiny of FPI by the
U.S. Office of the Special Counsel, the Operational Safety and Health
Organization (OSHA) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Critics say that the scrutiny has led to few reforms.
FPI, which operates as a unit of the semi-autonomous, government-run
corporation UNICOR, opened its first electronics recycling business at a
federal prison in Marianna, Florida, in 1994. Since then, the company's
electronics recycling program has spread to six other federal prisons across
the country. Inmates working for UNICOR are paid between 23 cents and $1.15
per hour. In 2005 the company recorded $64.5 million in profits.
The problems outlined in "Toxic Sweatshops" first came to light in
2002, when UNICOR opened a recycling shop in Atwater Federal Prison, a
maximum-security facility in Merced, California. Among their duties,
prisoners at the facility were charged with separating glass cathode ray
tubes (CRT) from computer monitors. Sometimes they were given hammers; other
times, they were forced to improvise.
"When the operation began, most glass room workers would heft the
CRT to head height and slam the CRT down on the metal table and keep
slamming it on the table until the glass broke away from whatever they were
trying to remove," said one prisoner quoted in the report. "We were getting
showers of glass and chemicals out of the tube."
A single computer contains hundreds of chemicals - including up to 8
pounds of lead - that are known to cause cancer, respiratory illness and
reproductive problems, says the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Prisoners
interviewed for the report cite health issues, including slow-healing
wounds, sinus problems, headaches, fatigue, and burning skin, eyes, noses
and throats. Since no one on the recycling floor was issued proper
protective gear, the guards and other personnel who supervised the inmates
fared little better.
Leroy Smith, a health and safety manager at the facility, became
concerned when air quality tests that he initiated showed elevated levels of
toxins in the recycling center, which sat just feet from a food-processing
area. After each test, Smith said, he would suspend operations and request
further safety measures, only to be overridden by Atwater Federal Prison
officials and UNICOR supervisors who insisted there was no safety threat.
In December 2004, after being repeatedly rebuffed by his superiors,
Smith took his case public - first filing a complaint with OSHA, and then
with the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) - an independent federal
investigative agency with responsibility over federal employees.
What followed, says his attorney Mary Dryovage, was a Kafkaesque
trip through bureaucratic hell. "OSHA has no jurisdiction over UNICOR, but
since there were a few Bureau of Prison employees in the facility, they
decided to come out," Dryovage says.
But, she says, in an unprecedented move, OSHA scheduled the
inspection in advance, giving UNICOR management a three-week head-start to
clean up their act. "By the time they came, management had loaded all the
computer parts onto trucks and shipped them out," Dryovage says. "There was
nothing there for them to find."
According to watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental
Responsibility, over the course of the next year the Bureau of Prisons
continued to downplay the severity of the problem and, along with UNICOR
management, launched a campaign of intimidation against Smith and anyone
else they suspected of aiding him.
"I received verbal threats of demotion, negative log entries, denial
of promotion and threats of disciplinary action, among other things" Smith
In October 2004, on doctors' orders, Smith, a father of five and a
13-year employee of the Bureau of Prisons, left his job on medical leave. He
was forced out, he insists, by work-related stress caused by retaliation
against him for speaking out. It would take more than a year before the
prison agreed to take him back.
Dryovage joined the case in March 2005 and filed a whistleblower
protection suit with OSC on Smith's behalf. Throughout the case, she says,
UNICOR remained hidden behind a cloak of immunity, with prison authorities
taking the blows. When Atwater's warden, Paul M. Schultz, finally decided to
cooperate with Smith's case in 2005, Schultz was relieved of his position
and transferred across the country to New Jersey.
"[UNICOR] basically has a sweetheart deal that nobody can look into
or go about challenging," Dryovage says. "It's sort of like dealing with the
Mafia. They have ways of getting you to back off."
Proponents of the company say UNICOR reduces inmate recidivism by
offering essential on-the-job training. Dryovage laughs that off: "Tell me,
what kind of job training does an inmate get smashing a computer to pieces
with a hammer?"
In the summer of 2005, the Bureau of Prisons conceded that prisoners
and staff members in at least three UNICOR facilities had been exposed to
toxins that exceeded federal limits and issued a report claiming the
problems had been fixed. But last spring, OSC contradicted that assessment -
citing holes in the Bureau's findings - and called for a thorough
investigation. In May, the case was referred to the Inspector General for
the U.S. Justice Department, which has authority over the federal prison
system. That investigation is ongoing.
Today, Smith volunteers his time as an advocate for staff and
inmates who continue to work under unsafe conditions at UNICOR recycling
facilities. In September, Smith was named OSC's "Public Servant of the Year"
for 2006 - an award he says is bittersweet.
"The dangers that I identified go un-remedied," says Smith. "Daily,
I receive phone calls from my colleagues working in computer recycling
operations ... who describe coming home coated in dust. Even though it now
acknowledges safety deficiencies, the Bureau of Prisons is not offering
medical screening or assistance."
Christopher Moraff is a Philadelphia-based writer and photographer.
A frequent contributor to In These Times, he has also written for the
American Prospect Online, Boulder Weekly and Entrepreneur Magazine, among
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