Prisoners Who Tore Down Ark. Blight Fear Toxic Exposure
'They sold us on a dream'
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 15, 2016 3:41 PM CDT
Workers in Pine Bluff (not pictured here) are worried they breathed in toxic asbestos dust.   (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

(Newser) – It was supposed to be a win-win for everyone involved in Pine Bluff's Mulligan Road project: The Arkansas city would get rid of abandoned houses that were an eyesore, while the inmates and parolees who tore down those eyesores would receive valuable job training and other perks. But as the New York Times reports, those prisoners are now crying foul, saying hazardous conditions on the job exposed them to possibly toxic asbestos dust with minimal protection. "They sold us on a dream," one of the workers says of the program that Kevin Murphy, Mulligan Road's director, told the Pine Bluff Commercial two years ago could possibly help keep inmates from re-offending. The program's original aim: destroy 600 or so dilapidated houses, while prisoners who worked at the demolition sites would not only build up work experience they could use on the outside, but also reap other benefits such as GED classes, up to $1,000 for a six-month stint, and possible early release and job placement.

But with just $830,000 and a bit more than two years to complete the program, it was going to be, as the Times puts it, a "very tight squeeze." And so while asbestos in these buildings was apparently acknowledged, not much was done to take care of it—a firetruck was promised to wet the decimated buildings, which would presumably keep the dust to a minimum. Inmates interviewed by the Times, meanwhile, say they received next to no demolition training and disposable dust masks that didn't offer protection against asbestos, and were refused more protection when the dust clouds got particularly bad. The program was shut down after the EPA got wind of supposed violations, sent investigators to Pine Bluff in May, and warned there could be penalties for health and safety violations. As for the inmates' claims and fears, the director of the Mulligan Road project said in an email: "Many of the statements are just not true." (Read the entire Times story for the program's history.)