America's Slave Labor

By Moraff, Christopher | In These Times, January 2007 | Go to article overview

America's Slave Labor


Moraff, Christopher, In These Times


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 Take-Back 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 Protection Agency.

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. …

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