Killing Them Slowly

U.S. Prisoners Exposed to Deadly Chemicals in Toxic Sweatshops
By Christopher Moraff, In These Times. Posted January 24, 2007.

For more than a decade, the Federal Prison Industries has been forcing inmates to handle toxic “e-waste” containing arsenic, mercury, lead and other cancer-causing chemicals.

A single computer contains hundreds of chemicals that are known to cause cancer and other illnesses.

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 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.

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