From the March 2007 Idaho Observer:

Government, industry, toxic waste and prison slave labor

It sounds like something the Bush Administration would proclaim: A Human Rights violation suffered in Chinese prisonsóat least before China began financing the U.S. dollar and opened the doors to foreign investment.

To make money for campaign contributors, a company named UNICOR was created to work prisoners in federal penitentiaries. It would recycle electronic waste found in obsolete computers, TVs, and other electronic devices. Paying inmates between 23 cents and $1.15 per hour, UNICOR declared a profit of $64.5 million in 2005.

The federal prison at Marianna, Florida, was the first facility to exploit for profit what is essentially a source of slave labor. The waste prisoners were handling contained mercury, arsenic, selenium, lead, beryllium, and dioxins. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regard all of this material as extremely hazardous or as outright poisons. A single computer contains hundreds of chemicals, many known to cause cancer, and up to eight pounds of lead.

In 2002, convicts at Atwater Federal Prison, Merced, CA, also recycling computer components, began to report slow healing wounds, severe headaches, fatigue, burning skin, sinus problems, and disorders of the eyes, nose, and throat. A health and safety manager, Leroy Smith, ran an air quality test. This revealed highly elevated toxin levels. Smith was especially concerned because the kitchen, which prepared food for the entire prison, sat only a few feet away from the UNICOR facility which was clearly generating deadly airborne poisons. He shut the facility down.

Atwater prison officials simply claimed there was no safety threat. Offering not one shred of evidence to support this assertion, the warden put the recycling plant back in operation.

It was closed and reopened several times, with Mr. Smith being severely chastised by superiors for interfering with a profitable slave labor "free" enterprise operation generating handsome profits for Republican elites.

Leroy Smith didnít give up. Conditions grew worse and he discovered some prisons didnít let convict laborers use hammers. To break open TVs and monitors with cathode ray tubes, convicts needed to lift them to a height and smash them down. This sends splinters of glass flying everywhere, not to overlook releasing the toxic gases inside the tubes. Since no protective gear was issued to anybody, guards and civilian supervisors alike were suffering health problems.

After yet another official rebuff in Dec., 2004, Smith filed complaints with OSHA and the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel (OSC). He then went public.

OSHA claimed it had no jurisdiction over UNICOR, but OSC took the case.

Next, in March 2005, Smith was relieved of his position in Calif., and transferred across the country to New Jersey. Smith is a family man with five children, all uprooted. Once again, having a conscience evoked retaliation from a government which has none.

A few months later, the Bureau of Prisons finally conceded that a few convicts and staff were exposed to toxins, but claimed the conditions were now fixed. OSC attorney Mary Dryovage disagreed, calling for a full investigation. When UNICOR protested it reduced recidivism by offering essential on-the-job training, she remarked, "Tell me, what kind of job training does an inmate get smashing a computer with a hammer?"

In May 2006, the case was referred to the Inspector General for the U.S. Justice Dept., who has authority over all federal prisons.

There is little further activity to report on the case, but OSC named Leroy Smith its "Public Servant of the Year" for 2006. It is an honor richly deserved.

Richard Geffken

Mayo, Florida

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