In increasing numbers of municipalities, inmate work crews are used to perform various jobs. While those who intentionally do harm to others in violation of society’s laws certainly owe a debt to that society, asbestos poisoning shouldn’t be part of the penalty. Yet that is what happened this past summer. In July, a work crew of six state prison inmates and two supervising officers from the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility were assigned to the renovation project of the 100-year-old Staten Island Borough Hall.
After several hours of pulling up old carpet and floor tiles, the work crew was ordered to stop because it was believed that the floor tiles contained asbestos. Later when tested, carpet and tile samples were found to contain well over 4% asbestos by weight.
NYC municipal codes and New York state laws require that trained and licensed asbestos abatement personnel with specialized equipment, working under strict safety protocols, be engaged in any project dealing with materials that contain 1% asbestos or more. The two officers report that they and their crew may have been exposed to asbestos fibers for as long as a year, working in the building. They were neither warned nor told to use protective equipment. One officer said, “I was just shocked that they would allow us to be exposed to that.” The two officers have now filed lawsuits against New York City. Yesterday, a State Supreme Court judge in Staten Island heard requests that an independent asbestos auditor conduct a survey of the work site. The New York Times reported that the six inmates may join the suit. Meanwhile, a city official who declined to be identified told the Times that all necessary permits pertaining to asbestos abatement for the renovation project had been filed. However, a second city official, who also was not identified, stated that the work done by the inmate crew and their supervisors was in fact not part of the authorized renovation.