Federal prison staff and inmates faced primitive and hazardous working conditions in an electronic waste recycling program that violated more than 30 job safety requirements, according to a recently-released government report.
Capping a more than four-year investigation, the blistering report said recycling workers were repeatedly exposed to high levels of cadmium and lead, both toxic metals, because of a pervasive indifference to safety by senior officials of Federal Prison Industries, a for-profit corporation within the US Bureau of Prisons that means to teach job skills to inmates.
Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, had been under investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general since 2006. It employs 17,000 people at more than 100 prison factories. The probe was limited to the recycling plants it currently runs at seven U.S. prisons.
The recycling program, which began in the mid-1990s and at its peak included 10 prison sites, takes in computers, monitors and other devices, refurbishing some and dismantling others to salvage electronic components, metals and glass. The devices contain toxic metals and are dangerous to handle without proper ventilation, respiratory protection and training.
The report describes a culture of disregard for safety that prevailed through the early years of the program, which included ignoring or concealing hazards to maintain production schedules and cut costs. For example, the report said, managers repeatedly sought to deceive safety officials by stopping or slowing production prior to inspections, "thereby rendering the work conditions unrepresentative of normal conditions."
Managers also ignored information about hazards "that should have caused them to suspend, modify, or postpone" operations "or at least to conduct further evaluation and testing," according to the report.
This "sometimes resulted in violations of OSHA regulations and exposures of staff and inmates to toxic metals. As a pattern, we believe this conduct evidenced willful indifference to the safety of staff and inmates, and constituted gross mismanagement."
As UNICOR expanded the recycling operation, new plants typically were set up without adequate planning or professional assistance to control hazards and comply with the law, according to the report.
It quoted a former warden at the federal prison in Atwater where recycling began in 2002, who described it as "kind of a willy-nilly, no written policy program .... They said we're going to do this and they just (did it) by the seat of your pants."
The worst violations occurred from the late 1990s until mid-2003, when UNICOR began to make safety improvements, the report said.
Glass-breaking, the most hazardous operation, was halted at all the recycling plants in 2009, the report said. Glass-breaking involves smashing cathode ray tubes, which typically contain 2 to 5 pounds of lead.
In a prepared statement, the Bureau of Prisons thanked the inspector general for performing "a detailed analysis that greatly assisted and will continue to assist our agency."
Along with Atwater, prison recycling plants operate at Fort Dix, Leavenworth, Kan., Lewisburg, Pa., Marianna, Fla., Texarkana, Texas, and Tucson.