Is Pre-trial Labor Slavery?

Lawsuit over solitary vs. work detail stirs a 13th Amendment debate

Hard day at the office_WHere Excuses Go to DieIs pre-trial labor slavery?

Not every detention facility relies on the same frontline custody policies, but the fact is, most pre-trial prisoners are allowed to choose between a daily work assignment and remaining confined to their dorm units or cells.

Before we dive in, let’s take a look at what, for some, is merely semantics. For others, though, the distinction couldn’t be more important. See, you’re a “prisoner” until you’ve been sent to a genuine penal facility, at which point you’re given an “inmate” number. Once you’re on a full blown prison yard, you strive to graduate to “convict” and leave the inmate label behind.

Likewise, “jail” and “prison” are not the same. Jail custody is similar to an airplane circling a runway ’til it’s permitted to land. Jail is where one goes to await trial, pause between court appearances, get convicted and sentenced in the first place, then finally transferred to state or federal custody — i.e., prison.

Jail life, though, is often more harsh, because prisoners are transitory and often mistake jail for the big house themselves. Prisoners fear that not making a name for themselves right away is a dangerous mistake, so guys get beaten up a lot in jail. What many prisoners don’t realize is that they’ll have to reestablish their reputations as soon as a new busload replaces those they “taught” to respect them.

ooooooopThis is the exciting environment in which one must decide whether or not a work assignment is the way to go. The reasons prisoners refuse work are numerous, from wanting to avoid rival gang members to having been accused of crimes involving either children or sexual assault. Sure you haven’t been convicted yet, but if you ever get cornered as a pervert, the LAST thing you’ll want to rely on is the word “alleged:” it may end up being your last.

Sheer laziness, of course, is the biggest reason prisoners and inmates alike may refuse work. Though the payment for such menial labor usually doesn’t exceed 35¢ an hour, an accumulation of work hours does pay for postage stamps, stationary, and items with which to barter, like soap, candy, and smokes. But sometimes there’s simply no choice: you either work, or your stay is made that much more difficult.

Finbar McGarry, a University of Vermont grad student facing weapons and other charges, was apparently given a choice between solitary confinement and a 25¢ per hour laundry job. (McGarry had allegedly threatened his family with a gun and spoken of killing his teachers. I say he was on bath salts, but that’s another discussion. To me, the point is, if you’re named like a Hobbit, you have no business pistol whipping people.)

Prison Laundry

Finny didn’t want to work the laundry and he let his jailers know it, which is when he was threatened with solitary confinement. However unsanitary or under-compensated laundry duty may have seemed at the time, I suspect he probably had a target on his back before the choice even came down.

BTW, most Badges will tolerate a little bellyaching if you choose your battles wisely (i.e. not spout your rights to everyone you see). So it’s surprising to me that Finny would have gone from first gear to fifth so immediately. Usually there’s an option before the dreaded isolation unit.

Master of Fine Arts in Laundry CartsBut to avoid being sent to “the hole,” Finny gave in and opted to washed some nasty linens. Shortly thereafter, he contracted a bacterial infection, which probably made him that much more of joy. Still, one day, all charges against him were dropped and Finbar was freed. He felt certain his 13th Amendment rights had been violated, so he sued the state of Vermont for $11 million, asserting he’d been made a slave at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. Three days a week he worked, for up to 14 hours. It had gone on for six weeks.

The judge ruled against McGarry, saying his constitutional rights had not been violated. But his lawyers appealed and the court’s findings were overturned. Thanks in part to this case, though, nowadays the question of pre-trial labor constituting slavery is again up for debate. And I can’t answer it any more clearly than defining slavery as forced labor under threat.

Prison Industrial LaundryWhat I can offer is how the fellas probably look at Finbar. Once he healed from being trounced for his name, the cycle probably repeated itself, beginning with Finny’s being called things like “pussy,” crybaby,” and “flojo”(Español for lazy.)  After all, the mentality inside is along the lines of, “If I have to work, you have to work.”

Plus, the same values we in the civilian world live by — good work ethic, good and bad behavior, etc. — all apply behind bars. The main difference is that you can get your ass whooped for infractions like laziness.

I’m an advocate for regulating the sale or disposition of inmate labor (and especially forced inmate labor for profit), but in jail and prison, definitions and legal interpretations come second to survival. As can be found in Where Excuses Go to Die, my account of custody life, “You can’t become your own country unless you play with the politics.”

But while the fellas trudged off to a work assignment he’d decided he was too good for, let’s put it this way: Finbat is lucky to have made it out of there to file his lawsuit in the first place.