Prison e-waste recycling exposed inmates to harmful materials

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Federal inmates have been processing computers, televisions and other discarded gadgets known as e-waste for a poorly administered and potentially dangerous prison jobs program, according to a new watchdog report.

Old electronics equipment often contains cadmium and lead, heavy metals that are toxic to humans. The inspector general at the Justice Department found exposure to the metals at prison e-waste factories exceeded limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Eating and drinking in work areas with heavy metal emissions was also allowed.

A government corporation within the prison system known as UNICOR runs the recycling program. In 1997, UNICOR began to accepting e-waste for prisoners to refurbish or break down and sell for processing elsewhere. The inspector general found several instances of unsafe working conditions for prisoners.

Witnesses described monitor processing sites where glass and dusk debris floated in the air in such heavy concentrations “that some staff and inmates described [it] as resembling an indoor ‘snow storm’.” Some facilities lacked the proper equipment, forcing inmates to tear apart computer monitors by “smashing them on hard objects, such as the bottoms of storage containers.”

In some instances, management was as lacking as the equipment, the watchdog said. In September 2010, a former UNICOR factory manager and his cousin pled guilty to a scheme selling the processed e-waste on eBay. Despite the many problems found, UNICOR began to make improvements in working conditions in 2003 and was generally in compliance with regulations by 2009, the watchdog said in its 433-page report.

FAST FACT: Federal prisoners make a variety of products such as office furniture, clothing, security fencing, and license plates. UNICOR has 103 factories employing about 17,000 inmates, or 11 percent of the federal inmate population.

Following are other new watchdog reports released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), various federal Offices of Inspector General (OIG), and other government entities. Congressional Research Service reports, which prepared for lawmakers but not made public, were provided by the Center for Democracy and Technology.

FINANCE

  • Forty percent of State Dept. employees holding government purchase cards bought unauthorized items, disclosed account numbers to outsiders, or lost discounts for the government by failing to properly log transactions. In 2009, State had 401 domestic cardholders who spent $40.1 million on supplies. (OIG).
  • The July failure of MainStreet Savings Bank in Michigan was due largely to high overhead costs, expensive offices, and the state’s deteriorating economy. The bank’s collapse will cost the FDIC insurance fund about $11.4 million. (OIG).
  • First Federal Bank of North Florida failed in April, costing the FDIC insurance fund about $6 million, because of its aggressive growth strategy and risky commercial real estate loans (OIG).

HEALTH CARE

  • New York state should refund $100.3 million to the federal Medicaid program because it failed to submit documents supporting the need for personal care services such as cleaning, shopping, and bathing in patients’ homes in 2004-06 (OIG).
  • HHS Dept. details the types of misconduct and offenses considered in banning a company owner or employee from Medicare or Medicaid programs. Such decisions are not subject to administrative or judicial review (OIG).
  • Some 44 percent of U.S. medical schools and two-thirds of hospital residency programs offered classes on Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse laws in 2010 (OIG).

MISC.

  • HUD should publish clear and complete information about how recipients are using $6 billion in economic stimulus law funds for public housing, block grants, and tax credit assistance (OIG).
  • Illinois received $242 million in stimulus funds from the Energy Dept. for a weatherization program but shoddy workmanship threatens the “integrity of the entire program” (OIG).

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