Hundreds of correctional officers across the United States are working in prisons — including one in Miami — with mold growing in areas constantly populated by both officers and inmates.
Prison leaders have allowed the mold to fester for years in some cases, refusing to test it. That’s due to Bureau of Prisons policy, not bureaucratic ineptitude.
Top union officials for correctional officers said prison leaders have balked at exterminating mold — making promises they never keep and refusing to hire contractors who can adequately eliminate it.
Some of those issues are in keeping with an explicit policy of the Bureau of Prisons, laid out in a memo issued in the summer of 2015.
“Currently there is no OSHA standard for unacceptable levels of mold in the workplace,” the first paragraph of the memo reads. “According to OSHA, it is generally not necessary to identify the specific genus and species of mold.”
“Since an individual’s susceptibility [i.e. potentially allergic staff or inmates] can vary greatly, mold sampling may not be reliable in determining health risks,” it continues.
It also says bureau officials “do not recommend hiring an outside contractor as a first step,” and requires prison officials to consult with bureau officials “prior to engaging with any contractors.”
The memo, written by Sylvie Cohen, the Bureau of Prisons chief of occupational and employee health, has been understood by wardens across the country to mean potentially harmful mold that employees breathe in every day at work should not be tested, according to documents and multiple union leaders.
Those union leaders report multiple health issues of current and former prison employees who have to breathe in the mold without protective gear every day. They said prison leaders have been reluctant to admit there are mold problems or do the type of intensive and costly work that not only gets rid of the mold but also means it stays gone. Multiple union leaders said prison leadership started addressing the mold only when they threatened to talk to the press.
“Instead of looking for mold and seeing if there’s a problem, their feet have to be held to the fire before they do anything,” said Aaron McGlothin, a union leader at a prison in Mendota, California, who has filed for whistle-blower protection.
“By dragging their feet on this, we’ve cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and put staff at serious risk,” he added.
The problem of mold is not confined to federal prisons. At Martin Correctional Institution in Florida, an inmate used specially rigged eyeglasses and a camera concealed in his Bible to record brawls, drug overdoses, rats, homemade shanks — and mold coating the walls of the kitchen.
But the issue at the federal level is magnified by the seeming policy of not wanting to examine the gravity of the problem.
The Bureau of Prisons did not offer any other more recent guidance on how federal prisons are supposed to deal with mold in response to a detailed request for comment, but said employees are encouraged to report mold whenever they find it. In a statement, it said mold and fungi exists “in nearly all environments at some level.”
“In accordance with guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA], Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], any identified mold is either removed or disinfected based upon the location and extent of the mold,” the statement said. “Guidance from these outside agencies recommends against the time and expense of testing for the specific genus of mold since all mold remediation is based on the location and extent of the mold growth and not the specific type of mold that may be present which may potentially impact workers.”
“This guidance also recommends the use of contractors for mold remediation based upon the extent of the mold and the availability of trained staff,” the statement added.
OSHA did not respond to requests for comment.
Corey Levy, an expert on the health effects of mold and a founder of We Inspect, a mold inspection service, and a member of the Indoor Air Quality Association, said the Bureau of Prisons’ policy not to test mold “makes no sense” and that an employer not testing mold is “abnormal.”
“Mold doesn’t cause just sneezing and coughing and shortness of breath, which are all common,” Levy said. “But depending on the type of mold, you can have long-term health effects.”
“The position here is scary,” he added. “Exposure to mold will absolutely have detrimental effects to people over a long period of time, even if they are affected differently.”
Attorney General Bill Barr has changed leadership at the top of the Bureau of Prisons following the apparent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of running a complex pedophilia ring. He was being held in a federal lockup without bail at the time of his death.
Barr removed then Bureau of Prisons acting director Hugh Hurwitz in August, and announced Kathleen Hawk Sawyer would take over the same day. Hawk Sawyer previously served as director of the bureau from 1992 to 2003.
In a private directive to staff last week, Hawk Sawyer acknowledged issues within the prison system, including staff shortages and budget cuts. She said “our reputation has been shaken” and her priority is to get the bureau “back on solid ground.”
“I fear that during this period we have had to get creative in getting the job done — at times we have taken shortcuts, we have cut corners, we have stretched the limits of our policy. We have not always done the right thing,” Hawk Sawyer said. “And to do so can result in very tragic consequences for you, our staff, and for the inmates in our care. Because of this we have lost the confidence of those for whom we work, the attorney general, the federal judiciary, members of Congress and the American people.”
Health services infected
Leadership at different prisons in the United States with mold problems is more focused on minimizing short-term cost and potential liability than fixing the problem and helping staff, multiple union leaders said.
At Federal Correctional Institution on Southwest 137th Avenue near Miami, constant turnover of wardens has meant the mold issue always gets passed on and never resolved, according to Kareen Troitino, the local union president. In the humid Florida prison, old air-conditioning units are frequently breaking and exacerbating the issue. Instead of spending the needed money to replace the units, Troitino said management has tried to save money by using temporary fixes, but that doesn’t work anymore.
“Some of these units are so old that replacement parts we need aren’t even available,” Troitino said.
The mold has meant multiple employees have gotten sick, with some having to take time away from work under doctors’ orders. Emails provided to McClatchy show complaints about the issue have gone on for more than two years, including a nurse saying “I don’t think the air quality is good” in the health services ward, and “all the vents look dirty to me.”
If there is in fact mold in the health services ward, Levy said that would be particularly concerning.
“If it’s there and someone comes in with an open wound, it can land on it and cause infection,” Levy said, adding there have been situations when people going through surgery in a mold-infested room have died because of it.
Prison officials say they have tested the mold, but Troitino has never seen the results of the tests and they don’t share results with him or the union, he said.
“Our air ducts are supposed to be yellow,” Troitino said. “They’re black.”
He provided multiple documents between the union and prison leadership showing leadership consistently blew off union concerns about air conditioning and mold. They alternately said the units would be fixed — a promise Troitino said has gone unfulfilled for years — or said the units were functioning when they weren’t. He also said prison leadership refused to reassign employees to other areas when they were working in temperatures over 90 degrees.
The Miami New Times reported in September that he’s filed multiple complaints with OSHA, which he says are still pending as the Miami area prison has asked for extensions. When he called and spoke to an OSHA officer, they told him they couldn’t do anything because there were no unacceptable standards on mold.
“ ‘There’s nothing we can do to enforce it,’ that’s what they said to me,” Troitino said.
Making staffers sick
Warden Paul Thompson, in charge of a federal prison in Herlong, California, cited the 2015 guidance on mold in an Oct. 1 letter responding to union leaders who reported a mold problem. In the letter, which was shared with McClatchy, Thompson said they were properly following the guidance in the 2015 memo, and said OSHA has no standards for “acceptable mold exposure.”
Kyle Barker, the president of the Herlong union who has filed whistle-blower reports on the issue, filed a complaint detailing numerous health problems of staff members who had been working in areas with black mold.
“Staff have reported problems including, but not limited to: (1) running nose, (2) burning or watery eyes, (3) sneezing, (4) congestion, (5) headaches, (6) coughing, and/or (7) skin irritation,” Barker wrote. “One staff member had to have his tonsils removed, due to recurring respiratory illness.”
The complaint follows an inspection of the areas with mold scheduled by Herlong leadership, which they banned Barker from attending. They said they cleared the area of mold. Barker separately used union funds to send a sample of the mold he found in the area to a third party lab, which confirmed that there were moderate levels of stachybotrys, a particularly harmful type of mold, according to documents provided to McClatchy.
A grievance Barker filed on the issue was denied. He’s now in the process of appealing the complaint, a process that can take years with no guaranteed relief. Barker said prison leadership has known about the mold issue since at least January of 2017.
Stachybotrys is a black mold that doesn’t grow overnight — problems like leaky roofs have to exist for weeks before it forms, Levy said. Not only can it actually attach to your nasal cavity, lungs and skin, turning you into a host for the mold, but it also can cause neurological issues, he said.
“We’re talking brain fog, trouble focusing, lethargy,” Levy said. “This would affect officers’ performance, which in their situation in a prison is dangerous.”