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Asbestos Exposure in Prisons

Asbestos has long been used in a variety of industries. Building construction one area the mineral has been heavily used. Currently,there are regulations and laws limiting the use of asbestos. However, before the mid-1970s, there were no restrictions on asbestos  use in construction. Now, asbestos is still present in many older buildings. This puts people at risk of serious health conditions, like mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis. Because prisons are often housed in older buildings, inmates and prison employees may be at risk of asbestos exposure.
asbestos in prison

Asbestos Use in Older Buildings

Asbestos is a natural mineral. Because it is abundant and cheap, it has been mined for extensive use in a variety of 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 htese 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

Prisons and jails built before mid-1970s regulations most likely contain asbestos. Asbestos can be found in a number of places. Because asbestos was commonly used for insulation, there may be asbestos in the walls and ceilings of older buildings, as well as around pipes, ducts, and furnaces.

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. This is because it was commonly used on flat roofs while shingles were most often used on sloping roofs. There may also be asbestos in paint, often flaking off walls and other painted surfaces.

Prisoner Exposure

Prisoners risk asbestos exposure by living in buildings that contain these materials. However, if asbestos materials are undamaged, 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 ca breakdown older materials, releasing asbestos fibers, this is a positive for 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. Ifthis 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 not working may be exposed when asbestos is disrupted and fibers are sent circulating through the air.

Employee Exposure

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. While supervising prisoners doing work that exposes asbestos can also put them at risk. Both prisoners and employees have rights to safety. When they are not warned about asbestos or trained to work with it, they risk exposure and illness.

Legal Cases of Asbestos Exposure in Prisons

Although corrections officers may be exposed to asbestos on the job, prisoners are the most vulnerable. There have been several instances of lawsuits brought by prisoners exposed to asbestos 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, 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 work space.

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, 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 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.  Lawsuits can be filed by both prisoners and employees to receive justice and compensation if they develope diseases like mesothelioma as a result of their exposure.

Page Edited by 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. Connect with Patient Advocate Dave Foster

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