Soenke Zehle on Mon, 18 Feb 2002 19:30:02 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Inmates LOVE E-Junk

Once again, enter the prison as a great (and virtually pollution-free!!!)
form of economic development.

Ironic that recycling enters the prison at a time where few expect the
prison to turn out anything but cheap commodities (US prison corps are about
to get into the market in Germany as well). While "rehabilitation" and
"resocialization" are not on anyone's agenda, environmentalism is (sort of),
and I'd wager that the Sierra Club wouldn't even mind, since social &
environmental justice have never been big with the (often corporate-funded)
eco-mainstream (all-too happy to fight immigration along with urban sprawl).

As Mother Jones (USA) pointed out a while ago, investment in a
(non-polluting!!!) prison-industrial complex will also help divert scarce
federal funds from the inner city and shift them to suburban communities
that host the prisons, b/c prisoners drive down the median income and
increase eligibility for federal support, see ).

Kinda makes sense, doesn't it?


From: Sil Val Toxics Coal <>
Inmates jump on the high-tech bandwagon


By Jonathan Skillings
Special to ZDNet News
February 14, 2002

Inmates at a new federal prison in California will soon be able to join the
high-tech economy via the burgeoning field of electronics recycling.
The U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater, Calif., which is set to open this
quarter, will employ approximately 350 prisoners in the handling of PCs,
monitors and related devices that have reached the end of their useful
lives in government agencies and private enterprise, according to Larry
Novicky, general manager of recycled electronics products and services
group Unicor. Unicor is the trade name of Federal Prison Industries, an arm
of the U.S.  Department of Justice.

When the aging electronic goods get to the Atwater facility, the inmates
will test them and then put them onto one of two tracks. The devices will
either be cleaned up for resale or donation, or they will be "mined" for
materials including glass, plastics and copper wiring.
"We believe we are only part of the solution for the 'e-scrap' problem in
this country," Novicky said. "Our
niche is providing cost-effective labor to deal with end-of-life products."
Unicor provides the recycling services to federal, state and local
governments, private-sector businesses and not-for-profit agencies. It
relies on recyclers and reprocessors to collect and transport the
electronic goods and parts.

Novicky said he has also had talks with high-tech companies such as
Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Apple Computer.  "We're an excellent fit to work
with large OEMs," he said.

Obsolete computer equipment has come under increasing scrutiny in recent
years as businesses and consumers cast off old models for ever newer ones.
The National Safety Council says that 20 million PCs became obsolete each
year in the United States in the late 1990s.

It isn't just a matter of finding space for all the computers gone kaput.
Electronic equipment is larded with materials such as lead, mercury and
plastics that, improperly disposed of, could pose health hazards.
For those reasons, environmental groups and governments from Europe to
Japan have been debating and enacting laws that would prevent computer
goods and household appliances from going into landfills and would require
recycling and reuse, at the expense of either the manufacturers or the end
users. The United States has seen less action on the governmental front,
but electronics makers have been experimenting with take-back programs.
A member of California's Integrated Waste Management Board said the Atwater
facility would have to meet state requirements for disposing of hazardous
waste. He added that he expects initial capacity at Atwater of up to 5,000
CRTs (cathode ray tubes) per day, with the potential for twice that amount
eventually. California bans CRT monitors from landfills, out of worries
that lead and other metals could leach into water supplies.

Meanwhile, critics have blasted prison labor as unfair both to the inmates
and to the private sector because of wages that are well below those paid
outside prison walls. They also raise the question of occupational safety,
given the inmates' proximity to potentially toxic materials.

Toxic labor?

"Atwater is just the latest and probably the worst" example of inmates
being exploited in the name of providing them with job skills, said Ted
Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), an
advocacy group. "It's pretty clear that it's a way to use a low wage, but
really it's an involuntary servitude type of approach to dealing with
e-waste, and I think that's pretty scandalous."

Novicky, who declined to specify how much prisoners earn, has a ready
counter to that charge. "My cost structure is so different from the private
sector's, I have security costs they never, never could imagine," he said.
"My staff-to-inmate ratio is so different from foreman-to-general-worker
ratio...So overall, we're market competitive, and that's what we want to

The money the inmates earn goes into an "inmate responsibility" fund, which
helps to cover child support, alimony and court costs, as well as
commissary privileges and money for when the prisoners are released.
SVTC's Smith pointed to the need for the electronics industry to develop a
recycling and reuse system that is producer-financed, that is, underwritten
by the makers of PCs, TV sets, printers and so on.

"The U.S. is the main global laggard in this whole issue. Since we have
refused to embrace producer responsibility, we're relying on prison labor
instead," Smith said.

But an executive at one of the largest handlers of obsolete electronics in
the country took a more benign view of Unicor's recycling mission.
"We'd be happy to work with the federal prison system, with the caveat that
none (of the waste) be landfilled or exported to the Far East," said Doug
Steen, president of Belmont Technology Remarketing, based in Chicago. "The
bottom line is that no incremental lead enters our society."

A typical computer monitor could contain 4 pounds to 6 pounds of lead.
Unicor has been in the electronics recycling business since 1996. The
Atwater facility, located at the former Castle Air Force Base in central
California, joins similar operations at prisons in Florida, New Jersey,
Ohio and Texas. Two other e-scrap facilities will open in Pennsylvania and
Texas by the end of the year, Novicky said.

With 50,000 square feet of production area and an additional 30,000 square
feet of storage, Atwater will probably be about twice the size of the other
facilities, Novicky said. It should begin operations in March, though it
won't be fully operational until the end of September.

Unicor, which operates 110 factories in 90 locations, receives no
government subsidies and must be self-sustaining through the sale of
manufactured goods, Novicky said. Products range from medical apparel and
terry-cloth towels to office furniture and license plates for federal

The inmate labor is voluntary, Novicky said.

"We work them hard, but they enjoy it," Novicky said. "They like to be
productive; they like working on electronics, frankly. It's technology, it
beats sitting at a sewing machine or making furniture. It provides them the
opportunity to learn something that, quite frankly, they can use when they
get out." 

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