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Asbestos has been used in many applications in a variety of industries, but the construction of buildings is one of the areas in which the mineral has been most heavily used. It is still legal to use asbestos, but regulations and laws limit how and where it can be used. In the past, before the mid-1970s, there were no restrictions on how asbestos could be used in construction and now many older buildings still contain plentiful asbestos that puts people at risk of serious health conditions, like mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis. This includes prisons, inmates and prison employees.
asbestos in prison

Asbestos Use in Older Buildings

As a natural mineral that is abundant and cheap, asbestos was mined and used extensively for a variety of applications before regulations on its use were put in place. Asbestos is lightweight, but adds strength to materials. It resists heat, fire, electricity, and chemical reactions. All of these properties make it useful for construction. It can be found all over many older houses and other buildings that have not been renovated in recent decades.

The problem with this asbestos in older buildings is that any disturbance can release fibers into the air that people in the buildings may inhale and get sick from as a result. When the asbestos is well contained it causes no harm, but it is not uncommon for asbestos-containing materials in older buildings to be damaged, broken, or to decay with time and release its fibers. Any renovation or construction work in these buildings only increases the risks of exposure.

Where Asbestos May Be Found in Prisons

Prisons and jails that were built before the mid-1970s regulations most likely contain asbestos, unless they were adequately renovated to abate the asbestos. As with any building, the asbestos could be found in any number of places. One of the most important uses of asbestos in construction was in insulation because of its ability to resist the flow of heat. Insulation in walls, ceilings, around pipes, and around ducts and furnaces could all contain asbestos.

In an older prison, there may also be asbestos in the roofing materials, in ceiling tiles, in flooring tiles and adhesives, in spray-on coatings, in plaster, in cement, and in caulk and putty. Roofing on prisons is especially likely to contain asbestos because it was used most often in flat roofs rather than in shingles used on sloped roofs. There may even be asbestos in the pain, which often flakes off of walls and other surfaces.

Prisoner Exposure

Prisoners risk being exposed to asbestos simply by living in buildings that contain these materials. However, if the asbestos materials are never damaged, the risks are low. Prisoners may be at a greater risk of exposure than someone living in an older home for several reasons. One is that there may be a lack of maintenance in a prison that allows older materials to break down, releasing exposed asbestos fibers. Prisoners also have less control over their surroundings and little to no ability to make improvements.

Another important way in which prisoners may be exposed is through the work they are required to do. They may do maintenance, repair, or renovation work on the prison building, and if this is done without protective gear or asbestos training, they may be put at risk for exposure and resulting illnesses. Some prisoners are sent to do off-site work that may put them at risk for exposure as well. Even those prisoners not working may be exposed when asbestos is disrupted and fibers are sent circulating through the air.

Employee Exposure

The prisoners are not the only ones at risk in these older buildings. Corrections officers and other employees of a prison may also be exposed. If they have not been trained to identify asbestos, they can be exposed in the same way prisoners are, by breathing the air around damaged asbestos. While supervising prisoners doing work that exposes asbestos can also put them at risk. Both prisoners and employees have rights to safety, and when they are not warned about asbestos or trained to work with it, they are put at risk of becoming seriously ill.

Legal Cases of Asbestos Exposure in Prisons

Although corrections officers may be exposed to asbestos on the job, the prisoners are the most vulnerable because they have fewer rights and protections. There have been several instances of lawsuits brought by prisoners who were exposed to asbestos and put at risk of becoming sick or who actually did become sick as a result.

In one case the prisoner’s right to sue the Lansing Correctional Facility was granted by the Kansas Supreme Court. The inmate spent most of his days in the facility, for over a decade, studying in the prison’s law library. He claimed that when officers searched the library for contraband, which they did once a week, insulation containing asbestos fell from the ceiling tiles and onto his workspace.

After more than ten years of this the Environmental Protection Agency determined that the facility had violated the Clean Air Act and needed to abate the asbestos from several locations, including the library ceiling. After exhausting administrative options and having his case dismissed, the state Supreme Court reversed the decision and he now gets to sue for medical care and damages.

There have been many other cases like this filed by inmates, but in some cases a government agency steps in to protect prisoners. In Arkansas, the state Department of Environmental Quality fined the city of Pine Bluff for failing to protect prisoners and parolees who were put to work in the city tearing down old buildings. The prisoners were part of a re-entry work program, but now may suffer health problems because they were not protected from the asbestos in the older buildings.

Asbestos can be found in many old buildings, and that includes prisons. The material was used for so long and often prisons are overlooked for renovations and abatement in favor of other government buildings or schools. This puts both prisoners and those who work in prisons at risk of being exposed to asbestos and becoming seriously ill. Lawsuits can be filed by either to try to get justice and compensation after getting sick.

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