MARIANNA - When former prison worker Freda Cobb developed sores on her arms, legs and back in 1997, she didn't connect them to an inmate work program that recycles computers and other electronic goods at the penal institution in the Florida Panhandle.
Nor when her hair fell out, when she had abdominal pains, when her weight shot up or when she developed other symptoms.
Now, however, the 49-year-old medically retired guard and cook supervisor at Marianna Federal Correctional Institution is certain that byproducts of the electronic recycling program are to blame for those ills, as well as her memory loss, temporary blindness, ear pain and migraine headaches. Her uterus was removed after tripling in size.
She and hundreds of other federal prison workers, inmates and others with similar complaints in Florida and six other states say the program - which has been criticized in a government report for inadequate safety procedures - exposed them to high levels of heavy metals and other toxic material.
"I want them to pay for the wrong they have done," said Cobb, who took medical retirement in 2004 and has become a leader in the effort to win compensation. "It's not fair. It needs to be stopped."
Cobb says victims inhaled metallic dust that filled the air like pollen and took it home or back to prison dormitories and dining facilities on their clothing. Fans blew the dust throughout buildings that housed the recycling activities.
Cobb and another plaintiff have filed a lawsuit aimed at shutting down the Marianna operation as a public nuisance under Florida environmental law.
A federal judge last year dismissed an earlier lawsuit filed on behalf of 26 current and former staffers, including Cobb, as well as inmates.
Prison officials say the recycling is safe. Marianna warden Paige Augustine denied an Associated Press request to visit and photograph the facility, which opened in 1994. In a letter, Augustine cited "institutional safety and security reasons."
About 1,000 inmates around the country - roughly 200 of them at Marianna - salvage nearly 40 million pounds of metals, plastic and other materials annually for Federal Prison Industries, which operates under the trade name UNICOR.
Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said the recycling operation had a net loss of $308,000 in the last fiscal year. She declined comment on pending and proposed lawsuits and the allegations they contain.
Glass computer monitors and television screens containing lead, cadmium, and beryllium, used to be broken with hammers. Billingsley said that operation was shut down in May 2009 for economic reasons, not safety concerns. Those components now go to a third party for processing.