A blistering government report about prison employees and inmates being exposed to toxic substances while working in electronic waste recycling plants prompted a call Friday for a congressional hearing.
The request by Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Ohio, was triggered by the disclosure of safety violations, including high levels of airborne lead and cadmium, at several prison recycling sites operated by Federal Prison Industries, a for-profit corporation within the U.S. Bureau of Prisons also known as UNICOR.
The report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, released last week, charged that top managers over a period of years had shown a “willful indifference” to the safety of employees and inmates. This included ignoring or concealing hazards to maintain production schedules and cut costs. For example, the report said, managers repeatedly sought to deceive safety officials by stopping or slowing production prior to inspections, “thereby rendering the work conditions unrepresentative of normal conditions.”
Wilson’s eastern Ohio district includes the federal prison in Elkton, where the recycling factory was recently closed but routinely violated safety regulations from the late 1990s until 2003. Even later, an air test revealed levels of cadmium more than 400 times above federal limits, according to the inspector general’s report.
“It is very clear that there was a complete disregard for the health and safety of staff and prisoners,” Wilson said in his letter requesting the hearing, sent to Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.
A hearing is warranted to review “what actions have been taken and still need to be taken by UNICOR and the Bureau of Prisons to better protect our prison employees and inmates,” Wilson wrote.
The recycling plants, which take in computers, monitors and other electronic devices, have operated at as many as 10 federal prisons since the 1990s, and are currently active at seven. The inspector general’s report said the plants for the most part had achieved compliance with occupational standards by 2009.
The report, which ran more than 200 pages long and was accompanied by more than 1,200 additional pages of related records and appendices, capped an investigation that took more than four years. It revealed that some instances of potential criminal conduct by UNICOR and Bureau of Prisons officials were referred to the environmental crimes unit of the Justice Department, and to U.S. Attorneys in Ohio and New Jersey. However, after lengthy investigations, no criminal charges were filed due to “ evidentiary, legal, and strategic concerns.”