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Recycling Behind Bars

Prison practices blacken a green endeavor

6 min read

Workers smashing television tubes with small hammers clutched in their bare hands? Toxic dust from broken monitors drifting around unmasked workers, who later eat their lunch at uncovered tables just a short distance away? Is this computer recycling in some Third World country, done in secret, off the books, and unregulated? Hardly. This has, for several years, been the state of computer recycling in seven U.S. prisons, according to charges currently being investigated.

In recent months the situation has improved somewhat, sources say; that is, the people smashing the monitors with hammers now have protective clothing and are using respirators so they're not breathing toxic dust. But other serious hazards remain.

The demand for computer and television recycling is rapidly growing, as new models make old ones obsolete and legislators increasingly require that the old components be harvested rather than dumped. Cathode-ray tubes (CRTs), for example, have been banned from landfills in California, Maine, and Massachusetts. But the labor cost of disassembly is daunting, so most old computers and CRTs sent for recycling today in the United States are shipped for deconstruction to Asia, where environmental-protection and occupational-safety regulations are weak.

Federal Prison Industries Inc., the Washington, D.C.-based government-owned corporation that provides industrial work experience for inmates in federal prisons, saw an opportunity--a quickly growing industry that has low equipment costs and uses large numbers of basically unskilled workers. The company, which has the trade name Unicor, estimates that in the next five years more than 250 million computers will become obsolete, producing nearly 9 billion pounds of scrap materials, according to its Web site.

Unicor began its first computer and television recycling operation in the U.S. prison system in Marianna, Fla., in 1994. The company currently operates recycling factories at seven prisons, utilizing more than a thousand inmates. Besides Marianna, they are in Atwater, Calif.; Elkton, Ohio; Fort Dix, N.J.; Lewisburg, Pa.; Texarkana, Texas; and Tucson, Ariz.

CRTs contain some nasty stuff, much of which can become airborne when the tubes break. A 15-inch tube, for example, can contain up to 0.7 kilogram of lead solder; it also will have significant traces of phosphorus, cadmium, barium, and mercury, all of which are toxic.

Plans a few years ago to add the computer recycling operation to the newly established federal penitentiary in Atwater stirred up concerns over the safety of such operations at other U.S. prisons. A staff member at the Atwater prison first expressed worries; later, independently, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an environmental advocacy group based in San Jose, Calif., sounded an alarm. The coalition got involved because it felt that the use of prison labor for recycling might be exploitation, says Gopal Dayaneni, a spokesman for the group, who added that a system based on underpaid prison labor undermines the nascent but growing private recycling industry.

The Atwater recycling plant began operations in April 2002. It boasts the largest CRT recycling facility at any of the prisons and is designed to employ 250 inmates processing some 450 CRTs daily. The workers are paid from US 23 cents to $1.15 per hour.

The system at Atwater is straightforward. Truckloads of equipment come in from a variety of private- and public-sector sources, including federal government offices--even, for a time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The California state government and Dell Computers canceled contracts with Atwater when controversy erupted [see photo, ].

According to Todd Baldau, a public information officer with Federal Prison Industries, the electronic material goes through preliminary sorting in a warehouse on the periphery of the prison, where it is searched for contraband and functioning units are separated from nonfunctioning units. Computer monitors and televisions are sent behind the prison fence to the main facility. There the materials are unpacked and searched again for contraband, then distributed to some 90 inmates for dismantling.

Because some tools, such as long screwdrivers, are barred for security reasons, inmates sometimes use hammers or similar tools for disassembly. Baldau says the use of hammers is reasonable, but the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in its report says hammers are not suitable to the task and have been banned in other recycling operations because of concerns about the dangers of shattered glass and plastic.

Once materials are separated, the prisoners pack and ship them to appropriate reprocessors. Leaded glass in the CRT faceplates, for example, can be remanufactured and reused. The yokes on the CRTs contain valuable copper. Gold can be recovered from computer chips.

Leroy Smith, a government employee who until recently was safety manager at Atwater, told IEEE Spectrum in an exclusive interview that he didn't like the planned system from the start. He says that before the disassembly lines went operational, he wrote to Federal Prison Industries, asking if the health risks had been assessed. Executives there assured him, he says, that there was no need for such assessment because there were no health risks from the monitors. (Smith has been put on medical leave because of stress and in retaliation for whistle-blowing.)

Actually, CRTs contain some nasty stuff, much of which can become airborne when the tubes break. A 15-inch tube, for example, can be held together by up to 0.7 kilograms of lead solder; it also contains phosphorus, cadmium, barium, and mercury, all of which are toxic. Barium, for example, which is used on a CRT's front panel to protect users from radiation, is extremely dangerous, affecting the heart, blood vessels, and nerves. Phosphorus, which covers the back of the faceplate to make it glow, can damage the kidneys, liver, lungs, and nervous system.

Officials from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition say they were surprised during their visit to witness the use of hammers to break the CRTs. In typical commercial recycling operations, glass is broken by a sealed crushing machine.

Smith recalls that workers initially wore their regular prison uniforms on the job and did not change after their shifts. They didn't wear gloves or even simple dust masks--he had requested them but was told that supplying them for every worker would be too expensive, he says. Inmates doing disassembly work have been given gloves to wear this year but still do not regularly get masks, Smith says. Dayaneni confirmed that as recently as 31 March, inmates still reported that masks were not being regularly used. Workers in the glass-breaking operation now wear protective suits, gloves, and respirators.

Baldau, speaking for Unicor, says that dust masks have always been made available. While Smith says that inmates were eating lunch in the production area, Baldau says that inmates today eat lunch in a separate building; when they did eat in the same building as the disassembly operation, the food-service area was separated from the work area by a half-wall and more than 9 meters, he says.

According to Dayaneni, the hazards at Atwater appear to pervade the entire U.S. prison recycling business. The coalition has received unsolicited letters from prisoners at some of the other facilities confirming identical hazards. Why, then, the spotlight on Atwater? "In the prison system, it takes a courageous person to rock the boat," Dayaneni says. "And the people who are closest to the problem--the workers--have the least opportunity to make their voices heard." A fire at Atwater two years ago, in which a television or computer cathode-ray tube evidently played a role, also fed concerns [see photo, ].

Late last year a new problem came to light. Inmates assigned to CRT smashing typically have their blood tested before starting the job, to obtain a baseline of heavy-metal levels, Smith says. In September, he was told by the prison's health services administrator that two inmates about to be transferred to the CRT booths from the warehouse and disassembly operations tested with high levels of barium and lead in their blood. Unicor's Baldau says that only their barium levels showed up as high, and that was due to a laboratory error. He says all blood tests were actually within acceptable limits.

To Smith, the test results meant that inmates involved throughout the process are at risk. He says that is not surprising to him, as the glass CRTs tend to break in all the areas--in initial shipping, in transfer from area to area, and on the disassembly line as their cases are removed. Smith filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in January.

In an initial draft response from Atwater dated 25 January, the prison warden acknowledged the problems and indicated that steps would be taken to address many of them. In the official response, dated 11 February, however, the admissions of problems were eliminated and the warden basically denied any wrongdoing. OSHA made its first on-site inspection at the end of March, after giving prison officials several weeks' advance notice. In the interim, inmates reportedly were assigned to a huge cleanup effort. OSHA has yet to release any findings.

Meanwhile, Smith contacted the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), in Washington, D.C. PEER is publicizing his case and helping him with legal representation. (He seeks to be transferred to a job at another institution, charging that the work environment at Atwater has become hostile.) Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, says that the U.S. attorney general has started an investigation but that so far it seems to consist only of a request that Federal Prison Industries investigate itself. "We want an independent review of recycling at Atwater," Ruch says, "and we want them to look at the other facilities as well." He says PEER intends to continue lobbying for further action.

To Probe Further

For background, see the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's reports "Corporate Strategies for Electronics Recycling: A Tale of Two Systems" and "Toxic Sentence: E-Waste Prisons and Environmental Justice," both at

Recycling hazards in China are described in "A Chinese Town's Get-Rich Scheme: E-Trash to Cash," by Jen Lin-Liu, at/WEBONLY/resource/aug04/0804nchin.html.

More information about Federal Prison Industries and its recycling operations is available at

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