The sheriff of Passaic County, New Jersey noted Sunday that he was “surprised, disappointed, and upset” when he learned that local inmates who are part of the Sheriff’s Labor Assistance Program (SLAP) were used in a project that involved removing asbestos materials during a renovation at one of the city of Paterson’s government offices.
An article in the Paterson Press notes that Sheriff Richard Berdnik was angered by this action, which put the SLAP inmates, as well as several municipal workers, at risk for inhaling dangerous asbestos fibers while removing asbestos-containing tiles and other materials. The sheriff stressed that those running the program never agreed to such work for the prisoners.
William Maer, a spokesperson for Sheriff Berdnik, said: “Under no circumstances would we have potentially exposed or would we have allowed any SLAP inmates to be assigned work around any potentially hazardous material.’’
Paterson Public Works Director Christopher Coke maintains that the men were not harmed by the work they did at the Ellison Street office, but the project has been of concern to the three state government agencies – health, labor and community affairs – that are already conducting investigations into the situation.
But Coke says no harm was done. “The inmates were not exposed to any greater danger than the DPW employees who worked there. They did not conduct any work that would have resulted in the release of asbestos fibers,’’ he stressed, adding that the men mostly carried debris from the offices for disposal.
City activist David Gilmore disagrees and was the first to bring the situation to light. He believes the city of Paterson tricked the county into providing the inmates for the dangerous work without specifying what they’d be doing to assist in the project. There is no word as to how many inmates worked on the assignment and for how long. Coke insists they were given gloves and masks but does not recall if they were wearing them or the protective suits provided.
Regardless of whether or lot protective gear was provided, Maer contends that the sheriff would have never allowed the inmates to work with the hazardous material, which can cause asbestosis, mesothelioma cancer, and other diseases if the tiny, sharp fibers invade the lungs.