Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Follow LeftTurn:

Special Offer from PM Press

Now more than ever there is a vital need for radical ideas. In the four years since its founding - and on a mere shoestring - PM Press has risen to the formidable challenge of publishing and distributing knowledge and entertainment for the struggles ahead. With over 200 releases to date, they have published an impressive and stimulating array of literature, art, music, politics, and culture.

PM Press is offering readers of Left Turn a 10% discount on every purchase. In addition, they'll donate 10% of each purchase back to Left Turn to support the crucial voices of independent journalism. Simply enter the coupon code: Left Turn when shopping online or mention it when ordering by phone or email.

Click here for their online catalog.

Toxic Sentence: Prison Labor & Electronic Waste

Gopal Dayaneni and Aaron Shuman
Date Published: 
March 01, 2006
    If you live in Arkansas and have old electronics to throw away, you can dial a 1-800 number and a little known company called Unicor will send you packing boxes. Throw all your old electronics in the boxes—the computers, monitors, cell phones, and fax machines that make electronic waste the fastest growing part of the municipal waste stream, rising at a rate of 5% a year—and call FedEx. The technology waste will be whisked away, and you'll never have to think about where it ends up again.

In October 2005, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality announced this unique partnership with the US Bureau of Prisons’ Federal Prison Industries (FPI), also known as Unicor. Using captive prison labor, dubbed Project GREEN-FED, Unicor promises "e-scrap zero cost" to the consumer. Electronic waste is handled at the Federal Prison in Texarkana. If this pilot program is profitable, Unicor plans to take it nationwide in 2006.

Toxic economy

Unicor, established in the 30s, has been handling electronic waste as a business since 1994. While the electronic recycling business has been growing every year, Project GREEN-FED has the potential to be a big boon for Unicor. But converting large amounts of electronic waste into millions of dollars in revenue comes at the expense of the health, safety and rights of the prisoners. In fact, earlier this year, a Bureau of Prisons report admitted that prison workers and staff at e-waste recycling facilities in at least three prisons—at Texarkana, Elkton, OH, and Atwater, CA—were exposed to toxics such as lead, mercury, cadmium, phosphorus, barium, and brominated flame retardants. E-waste contains many carcinogenic, mutagenic, reproductive, and developmental toxins that can have profoundly deleterious effects on workers.

The deadly waste generated from obsolete electronics is hidden from view, much like the prisoners who handle it and the communities who live near the dumps. Driven by an industry model of planned and perceived obsolescence, over 100,000 computers become obsolete in the US every day. The Environmental Protect Agency estimates that 250 million computers will become obsolete in the next five years, which does not include the enormous amount of other electronic waste from TVs and stereos to cell-phones to digital music players. As awareness of the hazards of e-waste grows, cities and states are passing landfill bans without considering where the deadly waste will end up.

Electronic waste is a double-edged sword, creating a toxic economy that harms poor communities around the world. The vast majority of e-waste is exported to poor communities in countries such as China, India, the Philippines, and Nigeria, where impoverished workers manually attempt to recover precious materials from the toxic soup of hazardous waste. Meanwhile, a new form of e-waste processing has emerged in the US in the last decade that can successfully compete with these dismally low wages and working conditions—Prison Recycling Programs. The winning business model of Unicor is to externalize all the costs of operations onto taxpayers.

Dismantling of electronic waste is a cash cow for the Unicor. Between 2002 and 2003 net sales from electronic waste recycling more than doubled to over $8 million, despite an overall sales drop in Unicor’s other enterprises. Unicor handles obsolete electronics for governments, schools, consumers and private businesses in eight federal prisons across the country: Atwater, CA; Marianna, FL; Fort Dix, NJ; Elton, OH; Lewisburg, PA; La Tuna, TX; Texarkana, TX; and Tucson, AZ. Over 1000 people work in Unicor’s e-waste recycling operations.

E-Waste injustice

Sheila Davis is the executive director of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a high-tech industry watchdog group that has been challenging Unicor on environmental justice and human rights grounds. She describes Unicor as “a toxic high-tech sweatshop hidden from view behind prison walls.” Since people in prison are required to work, Unicor manages to maintain a steady stream of workers by using the “sweatshop strategy,” paying pennies more than other work programs within the prison. Unicor wages range between $0.23 and $1.25 per hour.

Disproportionate polluting in predominately low-income and minority communities is pervasive. In 1994, the same year Unicor began handling toxic electronics, President Clinton signed Federal Executive Order 12898 to combat environmental racism, requiring all federal agencies (including the Bureau of Prisons) “to identify and address, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States and its territories.”

The federal prison system already drains these oppressed communities; 70% of the prison population are poor people and people of color. According to environmental justice and prison rights advocates, Unicor’s practices have violated Executive Order 12898 from the beginning. As one Unicor worker wrote to Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which has been receiving letters from prison workers since 2003, “[Unicor electronic recycling] amounts to slave labor to avoid compliance with safety and health regulations that affect many inmates.”

The Unicor facility at Atwater prison was the site of a major fire in early November 2003, when a load of 1000 TV and computer monitors inexplicably caught fire. The thick clouds of smoke carried toxic vapors into the nearby communities in Merced County, CA. Accidents pose a serious health and safety threat, but local communities do not have a say in Unicor’s operations in their area.

Hidden abuse

Unicor proclaims in its 2001 annual report that “the right to work is a human right.” Lawrence Novicky, head of Unicor's Recycling Business Group, says, "we are not only recycling electronics, we're trying to recycle lives.” While Novicky proudly proclaims that Unicor can turn prison “trash” into productive labor, affidavits collected by inmates at one Unicor facility describe horrific conditions. One inmate writes about the result of smashing cathode ray tubes in a Unicor facility:

    “We was getting showers of glass and the whole chemicals out of the tube. We was cutting ourselves. I only went to the hospital twice, but one of them was a serious injury to my chest. They even took pictures of it at the hospital.”

Unicor's facilities are intentionally low-tech to use manual labor to occupy the greatest number of prison workers, avoiding the cost of investment in machines like air-powered tools and mechanical shredders that responsible recyclers use. Materials are handled up to three times more than at private sector facilities in the packing and unpacking processes, alone. The use of inadequate tools, such as hammers to break monitor glass and screwdrivers too short to reach deeply embedded screws, increases the risk of toxic exposure when safer and more efficient technologies are available. According to a prison worker, “it is a very dirty job. The hammers atomize the components and send dirt and dust all over.” Another writes:

    “I work just outside [the CRT glass breaking area], and am offered no ventilator, and they won’t give us blood tests. It’s a Mickey Mouse operation, and inmates are knowingly being subjected to chemical cocktails, and that is the bottom line. We are guinea pigs and slaves and treated precisely that way.”

A study of occupational health risks associated with electronics de-manufacturing showed higher levels of lead and cadmium at workstations that manually break CRTs inside computer monitors and televisions than workstations that mechanically cut CRT glass. As one worker points out:

    “None of what we are doing in this plant would be used in a for-profit venture, as it would be too dirty and/or too hazardous to do, plus the EPA and OSHA would shut them down for I-don’t-know-how-many violations. Because we are merely federal prison inmates, the BOP can get away with the hazardous conditions we face daily.”

Contamination does not only impact captive workers. Toxic exposure can long outlast the prison sentences of people locked inside, compromising their health and costing them, their families, and taxpayers through ongoing healthcare needs. Prison staff employees take reproductive toxins and neurotoxins home on their clothes and skin, exposing their families.

Containing exposure

A Bureau of Prisons report in response to a whistleblower claims Unicor is complying with environmental standards and that there has been no toxic exposure since 2004. Prison workers, however, describe a continuing pattern of improper handling of materials and inadequate health and safety precautions resulting in routine injuries. Workers also report that operations are temporarily cleaned up prior to air quality tests, a practice observed as recently as March 2005.

While national prison bureaucrats try to green-wash over environmental and health disasters, the stories of lives and bodies wrecked by Unicor are building up. Leroy Smith, a Unicor employee, exposed the abuses and cover-ups at Unicor. Smith testified in a July hearing:

    "Unicor hasn't been in compliance since 1994 [when it started recycling e-waste]. And the only reason why Unicor is in compliance today or even coming close to being in compliance is because of what myself and [safety specialist and union leader Phil] Rodriguez established at USP Atwater that is now becoming centralized throughout the Bureau."

Smith stated that as early as 2002, national figures like the Bureau of Prison’s recently departed head of safety Stephen Tussey were relaying concerns that Smith's findings "could have union and inmate litigation issues." Meanwhile, Atwater Prison bosses expressed fear that his actions "could almost [spark a] riot.” Smith has requested whistleblower protection. The hardships that Smith faced after coming forward with his concerns are nothing new to the inmate workers. Guards punished prisoners who spoke out, and those who asked for test results or material safety specifications were told to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act. One worker wrote:

    “[Unicor officials say,] ‘This job is a voluntary one. If you are not happy here, you can quit,’ meaning, ‘Shut up. Don’t ask us for anything. Do your job, or we’ll replace you by pushing you out or forcibly retiring you.’”

Another inmate writes:

    “Prisoners were receiving literature about all the toxic material in the computers and the computer monitors, and they were sharing it. When prisoners left these reports on the bulletin boards in the living units, the counselors and case managers ripped them down and threatened to infract anyone caught posting the educational literature. We were beginning to collectively fear for our safety as we recalled how we shattered hundreds of pallets with no protection afforded us—and that we had been told that we were safe and that we had believed them.”

Responsible e-waste recycling in the United States is a growing niche, led by small businesses and non-profits. However, they cannot compete with the low-cost options of export dumping and prison labor. E-waste has rapidly become impossible to ignore as an environmental issue and should not remain outside the mainstream of environmental justice, labor rights, and human rights policy. With shrinking municipal and state budgets, officials responsible for managing e-waste are seeking the low-cost option, giving Unicor a market advantage. A sustainable electronic recycling system could create living wage jobs in local communities where workers and the environment are protected by law. E-waste could feed the creation of good, green, union jobs or build a system of further exploitation of black and brown captive labor. Those who generate and throw-out e-waste will ultimately decide.

For more on electronic waste, prison labor, and Unicor visit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition ( or the Computer TakeBack Campaign (


Gopal Dayaneni is an environmental justice and human rights campaigner with Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Aaron Shuman was incarcerated at Atwater in March to July 2005 for protesting the U.S. Army School of the Americas ( and co-ordinates prison support at Prison Activist Resource Center (