Prison Work Recycling Computers Poses Health Risks

Once they made license plates. Now many U.S. prisoners help recycle toxic computer monitors. The U.S. Special Counsel says that federal prisons have failed to keep working conditions for prisoners safe and clean.

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Whatever happened to all those bulky computer monitors that most people use before flat screens became the rage? Over the past several years countless thousands of those big bulky screens ended up in prisons across the country where inmates recycled them. It's supposed to be good for the environment because it kept hazardous materials out of landfills. But as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, it put the prisoners and the staff at risk.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Charlie Carter worked at the first prison recycling facility at the penitentiary in Elkton, Ohio. Inmates smashed the monitors with hammers.

Mr. CHARLIE CARTER (Prison Worker): For years we busted the monitors, thousands and thousands a day.

SHOGREN: The monitors exploded and particles flew everywhere.

Mr. CARTER: Stuff floating around in the air. You know, it was on our uniforms all every single day, in my nose, in my mouth, in my ears. All of us, you know, except for the factory manager, really. And you know, we took it home to our families.

SHOGREN: Leroy Smith was the safety officer at another prison, at Water Penitentiary in California. He was concerned so he checked the Internet and learned that glass in the monitors contains large amounts of lead, cadmium and other hazardous materials. Exposure to those metals can cause reproductive problems, high blood pressure, nerve disorders and damage to the kidney, liver, bones and blood.

Mr. LEROY SMITH (Safety Officer, Water Penitentiary): The dust was all over the floors, all over the walls, all over the staff clothing, and all over the inmates as well. It actually contaminated the factory as well as potentially exposing the staff and inmates to high concentration levels of lead and other hazardous metals.

SHOGREN: Smith ordered air tests and found levels of toxic metals far exceeding federal standards. Several times he tried to shut down operations but each time prison managers reopened them.

Mr. SMITH: I would be told to shut the F up. You need to back off before you're knocked off your righteous horse kind of things. Basically what they were trying to tell me was, is that whatever federal prison industries was doing was more important than the safety and health of the staff and inmates of that institution or any other institution that had the recycling program.

SHOGREN: He said safety conditions did improve but not enough. So he took his complaints to the Office of the Special Counsel, the federal agency that investigates whistle blower complaints. The special counsel called for an investigation. The Bureau of Prisons conducted one. It concluded there'd been unintentional problems early on but they've been fixed. This week though, Scott Bloch, the Special Counsel, challenged those findings. Bloch's demanding another, more thorough and independent investigation.

Mr. SCOTT BLOCH (Office of the Special Counsel): I think that there is a lax attitude towards the safety of both the workers and the inmates. And I don't believe that this has been rectified fully. I believe that the bar is being set too low by the Department of Justice and they're looking very technically at regulations and saying that we don't really feel that there's anything to be done with these hazardous material levels because they really haven't caused anybody to die.

SHOGREN: Steve Schwab(ph), an assistant director at the Bureau of Prisons, disagrees with Bloch's assessment, but says the prisons will open their doors to independent investigators.

Mr. STEVE SCHWAB (Assistant Director, Bureau of Prisons): We don't want to have this lingering on in anyone eyes, especially our staff, that we are in any way playing fast and loose with their safety and welfare. We take that very seriously, as do we the safety and welfare of our inmates in our custody.

SHOGREN: The whistleblower, Leroy Smith, says he's hearing from many prison employees who worked at recycling operations in Ohio, Texas and Florida. Some say the work made them sick.

Charlie Carter, the man who worked in the Elkton, Ohio prison, says he's recently started having severe headaches. His doctor says he has a cyst on the brain and boils have popped up all over his body. He says he can't be sure that the toxic dust caused his health problems. But he thinks it's likely.

Mr. CARTER: For us to be exposed like that intentionally for profit, and that's exactly what it was, I can't see why somebody can't step up to the plate.

SHOGREN: Carter says he wants the prison system to admit its failures and punish the officials who were reckless with his health. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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