In 1994, nobody at the Marianna Correctional Institution in Florida thought much about the safety of a new electronics recycling program.
With no masks or protective clothing, inmates hammered away at computers and other devices, raising metallic dust that settled on their shoulders. After work, non-inmate employees playfully drew letters in the dust on the windows of their cars.
Now, dozens of federal prison workers and inmates in Florida and six other states say that an e-waste program exposed them to toxic metals and caused a host of ailments: heart disease, kidney failure, internal bleeding, short-term memory loss and migraines, to name a few.
Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, is a government-owned, for-profit company that runs recycling centers at Marianna and six other federal prisons. About 1,000 inmates recycle 40 million pounds of metals, plastics and other materials annually, the Associated Press reports.
Twenty six current and former staffers went to court last year seeking access to UNICOR documents, but a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit. A plaintiffs’ lawyers cited the case of former Marianna guard Tanya Smith, who died at 36 in 2008 of cardiac arrest with obesity as a contributing factor, but had no medical problems until she began working at the prison.
Customers who bought salvaged computers at Marianna also say they were exposed. Parents who used a day care center about 100 feet from the recycling warehouse are worried, too.
According to Prison Legal News, LeRoy Smith, a safety manager at an Atwater, Ca. prison went public about safety problems with the UNICOR recycling program there in 2004, but Federal Prison Industries dismissed his warnings and transferred him to another facility in Tucson.
Prompted by the Justice Department’s office of inspector general, federal inspectors visited four of the recycling centers, including at Marianna and Atwater, in 2008 and 2009, and said that UNICOR did not adequately assess job hazards before launching the recycling program. As a result, employees were untrained and at some of the centers there were not enough safeguards for several years.
Nevertheless, while a few inmates and staff had high exposures, the report concluded that the vast majority did not. Still, it acknowledged significant information gaps, such as inmate medical records from the recycling program’s initial years.
A spokeswoman for Bureau of Prisons told the AP in an email that all inmates wear protective gear and that UNICOR “is committed to compliance with all applicable health, safety and environmental requirements.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they plan to file individual lawsuits seeking damages on behalf of non-inmates. They have received hundreds of letters from current and former inmates who want to sue, one lawyer said, but federal law requires that they go through a complex grievance process and restricts lawyer fees and awards.