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Posted May 2nd, 2011

Claim: Government Program ‘Poisoned’

MARIANNA — Freda Cobb worked late at her job in food services at the Federal Correction Institute in Marianna. Often she would get home after her daughters already were asleep. She remembers waking up to find “love letters” from them written in dust on the back of her car.

“I love you” and “We miss you mom,” they would write.

“If I didn’t get to see them the night before, they would write them for me when they left for school,” Cobb said.

She thought it was sweet.

Years later, the memory is bitter. She claims the dust her children’s fingers arranged into kind messages is the same dust that is taking her life.

“We were poisoned,” Cobb said. “They put these prisons in these small country towns, thinking these small-town people don’t know anything. They think we’re stupid.”

‘We thought nothing of it’

Cobb, who started working at the prison in 1991, is one of 26 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the prison, claiming its computer recycling program is toxic and hazardous to workers’ health.

In 1994, Federal Prison Industries, trade-named UNICOR, started a computer and electronics recycling program 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 labor to produce various goods and services nationwide.

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

During Cobb’s time in food service, inmates from the recycling facility would come in for food, covered in dust, and shake their clothes by the utensils, food trays and food, she said.

“We thought nothing of it,” Cobb said. “We were never told anything, so you just assume everything is safe.”

Forced to retire

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 organization that studies the environmental impacts of the technology industry.

“When dismantling electronics, prisoners handling toxic components need ventilation, proper tools, and adequate protective gear, as do prison staff working in the area,” says a 2006 SVTC report. “UNICOR facilities repeatedly failed to provide proper recycling procedures to captive laborers and…”



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Securis, Inc. Securis is dedicated to building awareness of the environmental impact of improper management of electronics recycling and data destruction. To that effect, Securis neither endorses nor uses vendors, partners, or companies that do not follow responsible recycling and exportation laws.

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