Prison Work Program May Have Put Hundreds of Prisoners and Workers at Risk

Toxic dust from an electronics recycling program run by the federal prison system may have put hundreds of inmates, workers and even their families at risk, according to preliminary findings in a two-year investigation by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General.

In a letter obtained by ABC News, the Inspector General's office last November requested medical evaluations of more than 300 prisoners and workers who may have been exposed to heavy metal contamination and other hazardous materials in operations to break open computer monitors and extract components. (click here to read the letter)

The ongoing investigation and findings that workers were likely exposed to toxic dust resulted in the suspension on June 27 of recycling operations at a prison in Ohio. They also may pave the way for lawsuits against the Federal Prison Industries, a government-owned corporation known as UNICOR that aims to rehabilitate prisoners through labor. One lawsuit has already been filed in Florida this spring.

Some accuse the DOJ of moving too slowly and failing to remedy the potential exposure problem.

Representative Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich) said he has low expectations for the ongoing investigation. UNICOR has grown rapidly in recent decades to make nearly $858 million in net sales and employ more than 23,000 inmates last year. Hoekstra accused the Justice Department of protecting it because it is "a cash cow."

"It will result in nothing," Rep. Hoekstra told ABCNews.com. "We rail against Chinese prison labor, and what you've got here is a situation where our prisons have exposed our workers to low wages and dangerous working environments, with the full support of the Justice Department and with the full support of the White House."

Tracey Hendrix, a 39-year-old former inmate at a federal prison in Marianna, Florida, is typical of the prisoners employed by UNICOR.

Paid 33 cents an hour, more than double the 12 cents paid to the inmates who worked in the prison kitchen, she dismantled computers in a UNICOR warehouse from 1999 to 2001. UNICOR now pays inmates between 25 cents and $1.15 an hour, and employs 1200 inmates in its nationwide recycling program, according to a recent brochure.

"We didn't have nothing to put on our faces, and we just breathed and coughed all day," said Hendrix, now a resident of Birmingham, Alabama.

She did not learn about potential hazards of the dust in the warehouse until another former inmate told her that she, like Hendrix, had a miscarriage after leaving the facility. Now they believe that the exposure at UNICOR caused their health problems.

"It seemed like everyone that was working with me had a miscarriage," said Hendrix, who is considering joining a lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment.

Twenty-six inmates, UNICOR staff members, their family members and visitors to a recycling operation at Marianna have already joined a suit filed in the northern district court of Florida in March. They accuse UNICOR and the Bureau of Prisons of recklessly endangering workers and prisoners, and list medical complaints including skin lesions, lung and heart problems, cancer, short-term memory loss, miscarriages and general pain that they blame on contaminants. Local union members at a prison in Texarkana, Texas are also considering a lawsuit, according to a union representative.

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