Hundreds of correctional officers across the U.S. are working in prisons – including two in California – 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 incompetence.
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 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 the Bureau of Prisons Chief of Occupational and Employee Health Sylvie Cohen, 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 only started addressing the mold 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 whistleblower 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 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 affects 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 prison without bail at the time of his suicide.
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.”
Making correctional officers sick
Leadership at different prisons in the U.S. with mold problems are more focused on minimizing short-term cost and potential liability than fixing the problem and helping staff, multiple union leaders said.
Warden Paul Thompson, in charge of a federal prison in Herlong, California, cited the 2015 guidance on mold in an October 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 whistleblower reports on the issue, filed a complaint detailing 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.”
McGlothin also alleged in a whistleblower complaint to Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen that leadership at his prison had lied to senior officials at the Bureau of Prisons about the existence of mold, who in turn repeated the information to Congress.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, asked the Bureau of Prisons in a July letter to provide more information on black mold found in the prison’s control room. In an August response, Regional Director Mary M. Mitchell said management was first aware of mold damage in April 2018 but had now completed all interior work to get rid of the mold.
McGlothin said that was flatly untrue in a whistleblower complaint to Rosen in September. He said he and prison executives looked under the floor of the control room, where at least one correctional officer has to be posted 24/7, on Sept. 12.
“Upon a brief visual inspection of the area I visually noticed areas of black mold which has been identified in the past as stachybotrys,” McGlothin wrote. “This strain found in the Mendota Control Room was verified through multiple independent lab tests.”
McGlothin said mold problems at FCI Mendota have been ongoing since at least April 2018.
“There’s been no accountability, and now they’re lying to Congress,” McGlothin said. “To say it’s been frustrating would be a huge understatement.”