- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 6, 2010

MARIANNA, Fla. | 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.

Some, including Miss Cobb, have gone to court with their complaints. Their attorneys claim that some people have died from toxic exposure connected to the program.

“I want them to pay for the wrong they have done,” said Miss 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.”

She said 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. People who came to buy computers at flea marketlike sales said they also were exposed. Parents who used a day care center about 100 feet from the warehouse where the work was done are worried, too.

Miss Cobb didn’t suspect the recycling program might be to blame until her mother, Camilla Norris, began having symptoms similar to her own. She, too, had gone there to buy computers. Before dying in 2006 at 73 of bladder and kidney cancer, she asked Miss Cobb to make her a promise to find the truth.

Miss 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 Miss Cobb, as well as inmates. The suit sought a declaratory judgment, injunction and the release of documents on dangers and safety risks of recycling.

Prison officials said 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, Miss Augustine cited “institutional safety and security reasons.”

About 1,000 inmates across 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.

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