Are Colorado prison inmates working as "slave labor" in the pen?

Here’s an interesting question to toss around. What’s the definition of being a “slave” as it’s understood in the American legal system? And specific to the report we’re about to discuss, what is the difference between a “slave” and an “employee” if you are performing work over your objections and being (very poorly) paid for it? That’s the point that four colorado prison system inmates (one former, three current) are attempting to have resolved in a lawsuit they’ve filed against the Governor, the state prison system and a private company that operates for-profit prisons. The men claim that they are being paid “slave wages” for jobs they are forced to do while under confinement and that flies in the face of the state constitution. (CBS Denver)

Saying they are being used as “slave labor” by the Colorado prison system, three current and one former inmate have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jared Polis, the state prison system and a private prison operator. They are asking that inmates be paid minimum wage, be considered state employees and receive the same benefits as state workers like paid holidays and vacations, and paid sick leave and medical benefits.

“I had a kitchen job which was like going to hell every day”, said Adelbert “Jack” Bassford, who did time in Colorado prisons for white collar crime and was released last year.

He said he was paid .10 cents per hour to sweep kitchen floors, “I resented it every day.”

Bassford along with current inmates Steven Craig Christopher, Cesar Pasillas- Sanchez and Norman Vasquez, filed the lawsuit in Denver district court earlier this month with attorney Tom Carberry.

At the heart of the issue is a 2018 amendment to the state constitution regarding slavery. It formerly read, “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Following the change, the phrase beginning with “except as punishment…” was removed.

The men’s attorney claims that you are either a slave or an employee. And if you’re an employee you have to be paid the minimum wage and receive all of the other mandatory benefits that employers must provide to their workers. The plaintiffs are also seeking back pay to when the amendment went into effect in 2018. Of course, it wouldn’t just apply to them. If the courts were to agree, it would apply retroactively to every prisoner in the state. The cost of the suit alone would run into the billions and the future cost of incarcerating anyone would skyrocket for the taxpayers.

Prisoners have always been used as a cheap source of labor. Stories of the “chain gang” are infamous and span the entire country. But there seem to be a couple of flaws in the argument being made here… possibly. Prisoners are offered jobs that pay as little as ten cents an hour, but they don’t have to take them. In that sense, they could simply remain in their cell blocks and be “unemployed” under this theory. But they argue that they are coerced into taking the jobs and threatened with a loss of privileges if they refuse. These include visitations, good time earnings, and commissary access.

There’s a part of me that immediately wants to side with these prisoners if that’s the truth. Refusing a job is one thing, but being cut off from visitors or the commissary is another. Being denied a chance at time off for good behavior if your only sin is refusing a job seems even worse.

But then there’s the part of me that keeps wanting to point out that these men are in jail. They are there for a reason and it’s not to reward them with the same opportunities and benefits that law-abiding citizens have access to as legal members of the labor force on the outside. If you obey the law, you can’t be locked up against your will by anyone. And if someone does lock you up, they can wind up in prison themselves for it. The reality is that when you run afoul of the legal system and wind up behind bars, you lose quite a few of your rights.

I suppose that’s one way to explain how prisoners can be paid such minuscule wages for taking jobs in the prison. But the retaliation being threatened if they refuse to accept the job still sounds like a bridge too far. Giving in to all of the prisoners’ demands seems ridiculous on its face, but there might be something to this lawsuit after all, at least in terms of prisoners being able to refuse a job and forego the pay without being hit with additional penalties.

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