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GLRPPR Sector Resource: A Review of Federal Prison Industries' Electronic-Waste Recycling Program

A Review of Federal Prison Industries' Electronic-Waste Recycling Program

This report describes the results of an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) into the health, safety, and environmental compliance practices of Federal Prison Industries' (FPI) electronic waste (ewaste) recycling program. Federal Prison Industries, which is known by its trade name "UNICOR," is a government corporation within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that provides employment to staff and inmates at federal prisons throughout the United States. UNICOR sells a variety of consumer products and services, such as office furniture and clothing, and industrial products, such as security fencing and vehicle tags. As of June 2010, UNICOR had 103 factories at 73 prison locations, employing approximately 17,000 inmates or 11 percent of the inmate population. Starting in 1997, UNICOR began to accept computers, monitors, printers, and other types of e-waste for recycling at federal prisons. UNICOR sold these e-waste items to its customers, sometimes following refurbishment, or disassembled the items into their component parts and sold the parts to recyclers for further processing. E-waste contains many toxic substances that can be harmful to humans and to the environment. For example, a computer can contain toxic metals, such as cadmium, lead, mercury, arsenic, and beryllium. Cathode ray tubes, which are found in televisions and computer monitors, typically contain between 2 to 5 pounds of lead. When e-waste is disassembled and recycled, workers can be exposed to toxic metals which can cause serious health implications. UNICOR's recycling of e-waste resulted in complaints from BOP and UNICOR staff and inmates, most notably from Leroy A. Smith, Jr., a former Safety Manager at the United States Penitentiary (USP) in Atwater, California. In particular, the complaints asserted that UNICOR's e-waste recycling practices were not safe and had made UNICOR staff and inmates sick. As a result of these complaints and at the request of the BOP, Department of Justice (DOJ), and attorneys for Mr. Smith, the OIG investigated the safety of UNICOR's e-waste recycling operations, as well as other allegations of theft, conflict of interest, and environmental crimes that arose during our investigation related to UNICOR's e-waste operations. [PDF 433 p.]


United States Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Oversight and Review Division

Resource Type:

Date of Publication:
October 2010

Associated Sectors:


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