US prison recycling ‘poisoned’ participants

Freda Cobb believes the job in food services at the Federal Correction Institute in Marianna has ruined her life. Cobb, who started working at the Florida prison in 1991, is one of 26 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the prison, claiming its computer recycling programme is toxic and hazardous to workers’ health.

In 1994, Federal Prison Industries, trade-named UNICOR, started a computer and electronics recycling programme in Marianna, the first of its kind. There are now seven certified facilities in total. Created by executive order in 1934, UNICOR, a government-owned, for-profit company, uses prison labour to produce various goods and services nationwide.

At Marianna, inmates break down and retrieve salvageable computer parts. According to UNICOR’s website, the products are sold to public and private industries to “save precious resources.”

If recycled without proper safety measurements, electronic equipment can release a toxic dust containing dangerous substances such as lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic, according to government reports and surveys by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), a California-based research organisation that studies the environmental impacts of the technology industry.

Freda Cobb’s deteriorating health eventually forced her into retirement in 2004. Another plaintiff, Tanya Smith, has already died at just 36 years of age.

The lawsuit currently awaits action from US District Judge Richard Smoak. It has bounced back and forth between the filing law firm and the government’s requests for dismissal, according to Patrick Frank, an attorney representing the case.

Freda Cobb and her colleagues can’t wait for justice. “I’m praying this will finally make it to court,” she said. “People are dying more and more and we need some answers.”

News Herald. SVTC 2006 report on UNICOR’s prison recycling programme [pdf].

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