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Report: Prison recycling program posed health threat for years

By Terry Frieden, CNN Justice Producer
  • The program aimed to provide prison inmates with jobs recycling old electronic devices
  • A new report says the program exposed inmates and prison staff to toxic metals
  • The study did not find health problems, but concluded they might occur in future
  • The report says protections for staff and inmates have been adequate since last year

Washington (CNN) -- An electronic waste recycling program, designed to provide inmates in federal prisons with jobs and skills, posed a serious health threat to inmates and prison staff for several years, a new Justice Department report says.

The report, issued Thursday by the department's inspector general, says from the program's startup in the mid-1990s until 2003, staff and inmates at several prisons were exposed to toxic metals including cadmium and lead. Not until 2009 did the program --named UNICOR -- fully institute adequate policies to protect staff and inmates from the dangerous substances.

The electronic waste program is a major recycling program at eight federal institutions. Computers, monitors, printers, and other devices are disassembled and recycled by inmates.

The study was undertaken after complaints from prison workers in the program. The report says experts were unable to conclude that health problems identified by staff or inmates could be linked to recycling work. However, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said it could not rule out the possibility of future medical effects resulting from past cadmium and lead exposures.

The inspector general said the UNICOR program deserves credit for seeking to provide the federal government and the public with recycling services.

However, the program's staff was criticized for frequently failing to share important health and safety information with prison executives. The report found "willful violations" of regulations in some cases, and determined that 11 UNICOR and Bureau of Prison employees committed misconduct or performance failures in their work.

The Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons agreed to take necessary actions to improve accountability, oversight and compliance with health and safety regulations.

Several agencies -- including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- helped with the Justice study, because of their experience in dealing with toxic substances harmful to humans and the environment.