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Associated Press via St. Petersburg Times — Workers, inmates blame prison recycling program for hea

Workers and inmates say toxic materials from
discarded electronic devices made them ill.

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MARIANNA – When former prison worker Freda Cobb developed sores on
her arms, legs and back in 1997, she didn’t connect them to an inmate
work program that recycles computers and other electronic goods at the
penal institution in the Florida Panhandle.

Nor when her hair fell
out, when she had abdominal pains, when her weight shot up or when she
developed other symptoms.

Now, however, the 49-year-old medically
retired guard and cook supervisor at Marianna Federal Correctional
Institution is certain that byproducts of the electronic recycling
program are to blame for those ills, as well as her memory loss,
temporary blindness, ear pain and migraine headaches. Her uterus was
removed after tripling in size.

She and hundreds of other federal
prison workers, inmates and others with similar complaints in Florida
and six other states say the program – which has been criticized in a
government report for inadequate safety procedures – exposed them to
high levels of heavy metals and other toxic material.

"I want them
to pay for the wrong they have done," said Cobb, who took medical
retirement in 2004 and has become a leader in the effort to win
compensation. "It’s not fair. It needs to be stopped."

Cobb says
victims inhaled metallic dust that filled the air like pollen and took
it home or back to prison dormitories and dining facilities on their
clothing. Fans blew the dust throughout buildings that housed the
recycling activities.

Cobb and another plaintiff have filed a
lawsuit aimed at shutting down the Marianna operation as a public
nuisance under Florida environmental law.

A federal judge last
year dismissed an earlier lawsuit filed on behalf of 26 current and
former staffers, including Cobb, as well as inmates.

officials say the recycling is safe. Marianna warden Paige Augustine
denied an Associated Press request to visit and photograph the facility,
which opened in 1994. In a letter, Augustine cited "institutional
safety and security reasons."

About 1,000 inmates around the
country – roughly 200 of them at Marianna – salvage nearly 40 million
pounds of metals, plastic and other materials annually for Federal
Prison Industries, which operates under the trade name UNICOR.

of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said the recycling operation
had a net loss of $308,000 in the last fiscal year. She declined comment
on pending and proposed lawsuits and the allegations they contain.

computer monitors and television screens containing lead, cadmium, and
beryllium, used to be broken with hammers. Billingsley said that
operation was shut down in May 2009 for economic reasons, not safety
concerns. Those components now go to a third party for processing.