Prison guards say toxic mold is making them sick. Warden says all is OK

Mold is visible in this photo taken at the federal prison in Mendota, California.
Mold is visible in this photo taken at the federal prison in Mendota, California.

A correctional officer at the Federal Correctional Institution in Mendota has filed a whistleblower complaint alleging toxic mold inside the prison is making some guards sick and putting the rest at risk.

American Federation of Government Employees local president Aaron McGlothin said mold in the subfloor under the control room – the place where guards operate security doors and the like – might be causing "sick building syndrome" where occupants get sick from exposure.

He filed the complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency.

The warden's office said it's doing everything it reasonably can to keep mold from growing in the first place, and has removed material that has mold on it.

"The health and safety of staff and inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution Mendota is our highest priority," the office of Warden B.W. Plumley said in a statement to The Bee. "We are working hard to resolve the issue, as the institution continues to contribute to the important public safety mission of the BOP (Bureau of Prisons)."

American Federaion of Government Employees Local 1237 released this photo showing mold under the floor of a control room at the federal prison in Mendota, California. American Federation of Government Employees

But the union president said more work needs to be done.

"They are trying to say it's fixed – it's not," McGlothin said. "They're just trying to cover the whole thing up."

The mold mess began in early April when an employee in the control room lifted a panel to the subfloor and spotted "a huge area of black mold," McGlothin said.

Officers also found mold under baseboards. They started circulating cell phone pictures to each other showing splotches of black mold.

McGlothin sent a sample of the mold to a lab in Oregon, which he said reported it tested positive for stachybotrys, a toxic mold that can cause mild to severe respiratory symptoms from breathing mycotoxins released into the air.

"It's very toxic," McGlothin said. "It gets in your lungs and causes bleeding."

At least four guards have told him about getting sick from working in the control room, he said. One guard consumed a bottle of Tylenol each month, but recovered after moving to another assignment, McGlothin said.

A request by The Fresno Bee to tour the control room was denied on security grounds.

The medium security prison in Mendota opened in 2012 and houses about 800 prisoners. The most famous former prisoner is said to be Jeremy Meeks, the "hot felon" from Stockton now engaged to a socialite.

An estimated 30 to 40 guards have worked in the control booth since the prison opened.

Last month, the Bureau of Prisons sent an expert from Washington D.C. to look at the mold problem. "The warden assured her it was no longer an issue," McGlothin said.

But when she saw mold growing in sheetrock, she put on a "haz mat" suit, he said. When she entered the subfloor to inspect it, "she was able to see the mold and see it was there," he said.

McGlothin also filed a complaint with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. OSHA was told incorrect information by the administration that more work had been done to remove mold than actually occurred, and its recommendations were mostly ignored, he said.

He also faulted the administration for not having the mold tested to find out what it is.

Plumley wrote a memo to the staff that it was not necessary to test the mold because it's so visible and obvious, and there are no standards involving exposure. The issue is what is causing the mold, he said.

Mold is caused by water intrusion, so the prison took steps to prevent water intrusion. It also dried the subfloor and removed materials that had mold on them, he said.

But it's true the prison gave "an apparent erroneous statement" to OSHA that a disinfectant had been sprayed, he wrote.

He encouraged the staff to keep supervisors informed if they see a problem developing.

"My focus has always been on and will remain the safety of all staff and inmates alike," he wrote.