Prison Labor

Concerns about the use of Prison Labor in E-waste Recycling

Federal Prison Industries (FPI), a government-owned corporation that
does business under the trade name UNICOR, runs e-waste recycling
programs employing prison laborers. Founded in 1934 as a work program
to keep prisoners occupied, FPI has become a large government
contractor, generating over $765 million in sales in 2005. UNICOR's
connections gave it access to lucrative government contracts and easily
made it a force in the e-waste recycling industry. However, UNICOR's
massive profits have come at the expense of the health and safety of
its prison workers, who work in sweatshop conditions with very low pay
and inadequate protection, as well as to the prison guards and their
families, who are exposed to the toxics released at the facility.

OCTOBER 18, 2006: The Center for Environmental Health, in
conjunction with the Prison Activist Resource Center, Silicon Valley
Toxics Coalition, and the Electronic TakeBack Coalition (formerly
Computer TakeBack Campaign), has released a report exposing the serious
health, safety, and worker justice issues at the core of UNICOR's
electronics recycling programs.


Among the report's findings:

  • Dismantling electronics is a hazardous process involving
    exposure to highly toxic chemicals and materials. It requires
    ventilation, proper tools, and adequate protective gear. UNICOR
    facilities, however, repeatedly failed to inform captive laborers and
    staff supervisors about proper recycling procedures, putting them at
    serious risk for the adverse health effects of long-term exposure to
    the toxic materials in e-waste.
  • Prison e-recycling is a
    community health issue. Prison guards routinely go home to their
    families with dust on their clothes – dust that may contain the toxic
    substances released in the electronics dismantling process. Mop water
    used to clean the floors of prison recycling facilities is washed down
    sewage drains, and then released into city waste water treatment plants.
  • UNICOR's
    low wages, limited worker protections, and use of outdated equipment
    allow UNICOR to offer cheaper e-waste recycling options, and in so
    doing to underbid conscientious commercial recycling operations.

View the full report: Toxic Sweatshops: How UNICOR Prison Recycling Harms Workers, Communities, the Environment, and the Recycling Industry