Most people think slave labor is dead, or that it is mostly confined to places like China (why people don’t care about this is material for another posting). Of course, we have slave labor right here in America: our prisons have become the equivalent of slave plantations. Instead of picking cotton,
U.S. prisoners working for a computer-recycling operation run by Federal Prison Industries (FPI) are being exposed to a toxic cocktail of hazardous chemicals through their prison jobs while efforts by some prison officials to protect them have been met with stonewalling and subterfuge.
Since 1994, FPI has used inmates to disassemble electronic waste (e-waste)—the detritus of obsolete computers, televisions and related electronics goods—for recycling. According to a new report, “Toxic Sweatshops”—published jointly by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Center for Environmental Health,** California-based Computer TakeBack Campaign and the Prison Activist Resource Center—the waste contains high levels of arsenic, selenium, mercury, lead, dioxins and beryllium—all considered dangerous by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The report follows three years of mounting scrutiny of FPI by the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Critics say that the scrutiny has led to few reforms.
This sad state of affairs has been going on for quite a long time, and it has all but ignored. Is it any wonder that prisons in the U.S. are overcrowded, with the U.S. having the highest incarceration rate of the world?
Besides, what’s the big deal? Computer components are safe, right? Wrong:
A single computer contains hundreds of chemicals—including up to 8 pounds of lead—that are known to cause cancer, respiratory illness and reproductive problems, says the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Prisoners interviewed for the report cite health issues, including slow-healing wounds, sinus problems, headaches, fatigue, and burning skin, eyes, noses and throats. Since no one on the recycling floor was issued proper protective gear, the guards and other personnel who supervised the inmates fared little better.
Leroy Smith, a health and safety manager at the facility, became concerned when air quality tests that he initiated showed elevated levels of toxins in the recycling center, which sat just feet from a food-processing area. After each test, Smith said, he would suspend operations and request further safety measures, only to be overridden by Atwater Federal Prison officials and UNICOR supervisors who insisted there was no safety threat.
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