Leroy Smith Jr., former safety manager at Atwater Federal Penitentiary, seems a bit stubborn. He blew the whistle on safety violations at the prison’s e-waste recycling center, and the government investigated. When the results read like a whitewash, Smith blew the whistle again.

The government investigated again. The truth came out. (More)

Real American Values, Part III – Respecting the Law (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at progressive values. Real American values. Thursday we discussed valuing people over profits: respecting each other. Yesterday we consider the earth as our home, not our trash can: respecting the land. Today we conclude with good government: respecting the law.

Our progressive movement has a moral core, but we rarely talk about our moral values. Instead we talk about issues and policies, facts and statistics. We tell voters what’s in it for them, but rarely ask them to be part of something more. So this week we explored how to ask voters to be part of something more, by telling stories that celebrate our progressive values … our Real American Values.

Real Americans Know We All Matter

The people Leroy Smith Jr. looked out for don’t tug at every heartstring. Along with prison staff, they were inmates in a maximum security federal prison. Smith worked for the Bureau of Prisons at the Atwater Federal Penitentiary, about 120 miles from San Francisco on what used to be Castle Air Force Base. His job was to ensure the prison’s work facilities – run by Federal Prison Industries, otherwise known as UNICOR – met health and safety regulations established by OSHA and other agencies.

It’s the kind of job one might be tempted to let slide. The inmates were convicted felons. Political demagogues may campaign on prison toughness or security, but no one campaigns on inmate safety. Most of what ordinary Americans know about prisons comes from fictional movies or cable documentaries that highlight prisoners’ brutality and violence. They’re stories crafted to make us grateful we’re not there … and grateful the bad guys are kept there.

But Smith didn’t let his job slide. Prisoners working in the UNICOR e-waste facility were breaking down old computers, monitors, and other electronics to recycle parts. It was the kind of work citisven discussed yesterday in Our Earth, but it wasn’t being done in China or some other invisible part of the world. It was being done in an invisible part of our own country. Smith saw administrators respond with “carelessness or indifference” as inmates got sick from breathing dust laden with heavy metals like cadmium and lead.

In 2004 Smith filed a whistleblower complaint.

Real Americans Don’t Cover It Up

The complaint made its way to the Office of Special Counsel, who assigned it to then Attorney General John Ashcroft for investigation. Ashcroft delegated the investigation to the Bureau of Prisons. In 2005 they reported that while some of Smith’s charges were true, the violations had been “adequately addressed” by prison officials, who had taken “appropriate steps to ensure factories [were] operating safely.”

Smith thought the report was a whitewash. He blew the whistle again, writing to the Office of Special Counsel. Smith said the investigators had failed to interview relevant witnesses. He said prison officials “willfully and knowingly violated … OSHA guidelines,” and the investigation “was not impartial or comprehensive.” Smith offered documents to back up his charges.

While the Bureau of Prisons dismissed Smith’s complaint and documents as “unreliable,” the Special Counsel Scott Bloch disagreed. In both a letter to President Bush and a press release, Bloch’s office said the Bureau of Prison’s “findings were unreasonable and that its reports were deficient.” Bloch said the investigators “made no attempt to explain” discrepancies between documentary evidence and their findings, and that “they relied on strained interpretations of applicable rules to justify their past actions.” Bloch called for a “thorough, independent, and impartial investigation into computer recycling activities at BOP institutions.”

Real Americans Respect The Law

Based on Bloch’s letter, and a letter from Smith’s lawyer, and a belated request from the Bureau of Prisons, the Office of the Inspector General opened its own investigation in May 2006. While the complaint had begun with conditions at Atwater, Smith had found that UNICOR had e-waste recycling facilities at other prisons, and that the other prison factories had many of the same problems.

The OIG inspected all of them, in one of the longest and most wide-ranging workplace safety probes in U.S. history. The investigation took four years.

Last month the OIG issued a 433-page report that documented widespread violations, where prison officials “failed to perform hazard assessments” and “concealed safety warnings about hazards related to toxic metals.” In one instance, prison officials disabled the factory’s fire alarm for three years, so it would not be set off by the clouds of toxic dust. The OIG found that “[prison] staff and inmates were needlessly exposed” to lead and cadmium:

Overall, we found a culture at UNICOR that did not sufficiently value worker safety and environmental protection. We determined that the flawed organization and poor communication between UNICOR and the BOP made compliance difficult to achieve even with the best-intentioned employees.

And not all of prison staff were well-intentioned:

We also found numerous instances of staff misconduct and performance failures. These included actions that endangered staff and inmates: dishonesty, dereliction of duty, and theft, among others. In all, we concluded that 11 UNICOR and BOP employees committed either misconduct or performance failures in their work related to the e-waste recycling program.

Several cases were referred for criminal action, though ultimately no charges were filed “because of various evidentiary, legal, and strategic concerns.”

Real Americans Have Courage and Persistence

UNICOR – the trade name for Federal Prison Industries – is a for-profit government corporation, like the postal service. Founded in 1934 to offer job training for prisoners, it gets no taxpayer dollars. It offers cheap labor, and the inmates are supposed to learn skills they can use in civilian jobs after their release. In theory it’s a noble idea. In practice such programs can turn prisons into labor camps where inmates are, literally, worked to death.

Leroy Smith Jr. wouldn’t let that happen on his watch. He knew we all matter, even prisoners. So he blew the whistle, and when that didn’t work he blew it again.

The Office of Special Counsel honored him with its 2006 Public Servant Award. As Scott Bloch said at the announcement:

Protecting the lives and well-being of these federal employees and even the inmates who have been placed in the care of the government is a high calling. And it’s a good thing, I hope you’ll agree, to have checks on federal abuse of power or illegal actions that affect safety or national security. For us here at OSC, it’s what we do. For someone in Leroy Smith’s position, however, it takes real courage to stand up to one’s boss. Even more, to stand one’s ground when the boss – upper-level bureaucrats – won’t listen. That’s real courage and persistence.

Leroy Smith knew Real Americans don’t cover it up. We respect the law. We have courage and persistence. Leroy Smith knew we need good government.

Those are Real American Values.

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Happy Saturday!