Asbestos exposure in prisons is an ongoing risk for workers and inmates. Before the mid-1970s, no restrictions on asbestos use in construction existed, which is still present in many older buildings. This includes prisons, and it puts employees and inmates at risk of developing serious health conditions, like mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis.
Asbestos Use in Older Buildings
Asbestos is a natural mineral. Because it is abundant and cheap, it has been mined for extensive use in various applications. It is lightweight yet adds strength and durability to building materials. Asbestos also resists heat, fire, electricity, and chemical reactions.
These properties make it useful for construction. Although asbestos is currently regulated, it can still be found in many older buildings that have not seen renovations in recent years.
When asbestos in older buildings is disturbed, it can release dangerous fibers into the air. Once these tiny fibers become airborne, it is easy for people in the vicinity to inhale them and become sick as a result.
When asbestos is contained, it is basically harmless; however, it is not uncommon for asbestos-containing materials in older buildings to be damaged, broken, or to decay with time. Any renovation or construction work in older buildings increases the risks of exposure.
Where Asbestos May Be Found in Prisons
Asbestos can be found in several places. Prisons and jails built before the mid-1970s most likely contain asbestos. Because asbestos was commonly used for insulation, the walls and ceilings of older buildings and around pipes, ducts, and furnaces may contain asbestos.
In older prisons, there may be asbestos in roofing materials, ceiling tiles, floor tiles and adhesives, spray-on coatings, plaster, cement, caulk, and putty.
Prison roofs are especially likely to contain asbestos. They often used asphalt shingles made with asbestos. There may also be asbestos in paint, often flaking off walls and other painted surfaces.
Prisoners risk asbestos exposure by living in buildings that contain these materials; however, if asbestos materials are undamaged, the risk remains low. Prisoners may be at greater risk of exposure than residents living in older houses for several reasons:
- One is a lack of prison maintenance. Because maintenance can break down older materials, releasing asbestos fibers, this can affect prisoners; however, prisoners also have less control over their surroundings and limited ability to make improvements.
- Another way prisoners may be exposed is through the work they perform. Prisoners may be required to perform maintenance, repair, or renovation work on the prison building. If this is done without protective gear or proper asbestos training, they may be 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 prisoners who are not working may be exposed when asbestos is disrupted, and fibers are sent circulating through the air.
Prisoners are not the only ones at risk in older buildings. Corrections officers and other prison employees also risk exposure. If they have not been trained to identify asbestos, they can be exposed by breathing the air around damaged asbestos.
Supervising prisoners who are doing work that exposes asbestos can also put them at risk. Both prisoners and employees have the right to safety. They risk exposure and illness when they are not warned about asbestos or trained to work with it.
Legal Cases of Asbestos Exposure in Prisons
Although corrections officers may be exposed to asbestos on the job, prisoners are the most vulnerable. Several prisoners have brought lawsuits after exposure and resulting illnesses.
In one case, the Kansas Supreme Court granted the prisoner’s right to sue the Lansing Correctional Facility. The inmate spent most of his days in the facility, studying in the prison’s law library. He claimed when officers searched the library weekly for contraband, insulation containing asbestos fell from the ceiling tiles and onto his workspace.
After more than ten years, the Environmental Protection Agency determined the facility had violated the Clean Air Act. The facility was then required to abate asbestos from several locations, including the library ceiling.
After exhausting administrative options and a dismissal of the case, the state Supreme Court reversed the decision. Now the former prisoner is allowed to sue for medical care and damages.
There have been many other cases like this filed by inmates; however, a government agency steps in to protect prisoners in some cases. In Arkansas, the state Department of Environmental Quality fined the city of Pine Bluff for failing to protect prisoners and parolees performing demolition in the city.
The prisoners were part of a re-entry work program but were not adequately protected from asbestos in older buildings. Now they may suffer serious health problems as a result.
Asbestos can be found in many old buildings, including prisons. Often prisons are overlooked for renovations and abatement in favor of other government buildings or schools. This puts both prisoners and prison workers at risk of asbestos exposure. Both prisoners and employees can file lawsuits to receive justice and compensation if they develop diseases like mesothelioma due to their exposure.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.