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 U.S. Office of Special Counsel
 1730 M Street, N.W., Suite 218
 Washington, D.C. 20036-4505

OSC: Prisons Exposed Staff and Inmates to Hazardous Materials
Federal Bureau of Prisons Has Failed to Address Concerns in Report

CONTACT: LOREN SMITH, 202-254-3714, lsmith@osc.gov
      WASHINGTON – The agency responsible for overseeing federal prisons has failed to address concerns about hazardous material exposure, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the division of the executive branch that handles most whistleblower claims.

      OSC yesterday transmitted a letter to President Bush detailing findings and recommendations regarding allegations of violations of law, rule, or regulation, abuse of authority, and substantial and specific dangers to public health and safety at the Department of Justice (DOJ), Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

      The whistleblower, Leroy A. Smith, Jr., a Safety Manager formerly stationed at United States Penitentiary Atwater, California (USP Atwater), disclosed that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (FPI) managers recklessly, and in some cases knowingly, exposed inmate workers and staff to unsafe levels of lead, cadmium, and other hazardous materials over a period of years. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), overexposure to these materials can cause cancer, kidney disease, disruption of the blood-forming system, damage to the central nervous system, impairment of the reproductive system, or even death.

      Mr. Smith disclosed that inmate workers and civilian staff in a computer recycling facility located at USP Atwater were being exposed to hazardous materials. On the basis of air quality testing, he repeatedly suspended operations in the facility, but management either ignored his directions or reactivated operations without implementing recommended, and in some cases required, safety measures. Mr. Smith further disclosed that BOP and FPI located a food service area in the recycling facility at USP Atwater despite the fact that it was exposed to the toxic materials in violation of OSHA regulations. Finally, Mr. Smith disclosed that in attempting to address these safety concerns at USP Atwater, he learned of similar dangers at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Elkton, Ohio, FCI La Tuna, Texas, FCI Marianna, Florida, and FCI Texarkana, Texas.

      OSC transmitted Mr. Smith’s disclosures to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to conduct an investigation, who delegated responsibility for this investigation to BOP Director Harley G. Lappin. BOP produced initial and supplemental reports in which it maintained that BOP and FPI staff had actively engaged in efforts to mitigate the dangers associated with the recycling of CRTs once they became apparent. The agency found that BOP and FPI management and staff took “appropriate steps to ensure factories [were] operating safely.”

      Mr. Smith vigorously disputed the agency’s findings and provided OSC with extensive documentary evidence to support his account of events surrounding recycling activities at USP Atwater. According to Mr. Smith, these documents demonstrated that management knowingly violated OSHA regulations. Mr. Smith maintained that the agency’s investigation into his disclosure “was not impartial or comprehensive.”

      Special Counsel Scott Bloch concluded that the agency’s findings were unreasonable and that its reports were deficient. In particular, the agency made little effort to explain how available documentary evidence could be reconciled with the conclusions of its investigation. Moreover, the agency’s findings relied on strained interpretations of applicable rules in order to justify its past actions, and the agency’s investigation into conditions at institutions other than USP Atwater appeared to have been cursory at best. In light of these and other defects, the Special Counsel observed that a thorough, independent, and impartial investigation into computer recycling activities at BOP institutions is still required.

      Bloch said, “this is a matter where real concerns exist that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, they have not been addressed, and we find ourselves at an impasse.”



The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency and operates as a secure channel for disclosures of whistleblower complaints. Its primary mission is to safeguard the merit system in federal employment by protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially retaliation for whistleblowing. OSC also has jurisdiction over the Hatch Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). For more information please visit our web site at www.osc.gov or call 1 (800) 872-9855.