Paying for the Work Done by Prisoners

Activist Attorney Sues Over Slave Labor Practices
by Lynda Carson‚ Apr. 03‚ 2007

In late March, Tony Serra — San Francisco’s well known and respected criminal defense attorney — filed suit against the federal government over slave labor practices. Just out of California’s Lompoc prison after serving 10 months for his years-long tax boycott, the celebrated attorney filed suit in an attempt to force the federal government to pay its prisoners a fair wage compensation for the work being done by prison inmates.

At the least, Serra believes that inmates should earn minimum wage for the work they do in prison — and that unions should be allowed to organize and represent the inmates for collective bargaining to negotiate better wages and conditions for workers.

“It’s a class action lawsuit,” says Serra. “I’m a member (plaintiff) of the class, and it was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. We believe that Lompoc’s pay scale is in violation of the Fifth and Thirteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and the United Nations covenants on political, civil and prisoner rights.

“Prisoners have no rights in America,” said Serra. “They don’t care about the prisoners in this country, and the prisons are profiting from the slave-like conditions being forced upon the inmates. Lompoc has a dairy and meat industry, including a cable factory which is a supplier for the navy and armed forces industry.

“Lompoc generated a lot of money last year,” he said, “little of which was returned to the inmates as compensation for the work that they do. The federal prison workforce generates around $65 million per year in net profits, and I received 19 cents an hour when working at Lompoc, while the other prisoners were only earning anywhere from 5 cents to $1.65 an hour for their labor. These are slave wages, and often the inmates come back from work covered in filth and are worn out at the end of the day.”

Serra and the 300 to 500 other plaintiffs involved in the class action lawsuit, are being represented by attorneys Stephen Perelson of Mill Valley, and John Murcko and Bill Simpich, of Oakland.

When I asked Serra if he believes the lawsuit will succeed; “I think that there’s so many immunities and waivers in regards to how prisons are being operated in this nation that the federal government will do everything possible to toss it out of the courts. If we could manage somehow to bring this class action far enough through the courts to bring it before a jury, we could win.”

I asked him about prison life. “It feels good to be out of prison,” said Serra, “but I feel bad for all of those that were left behind. I went through a week of feeling like Rip Van Winkle when first getting out, and I had a fresh consciousness to look at everything differently.

Read the rest here.

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