Federal Appeals Court Strongly Suggests Vermont Prison Violated Anti-Slavery Amendment

A Vermont man’s lawsuit alleging a state penitentiary forced him to work against his will has been allowed to move forward. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that the former inmate, Finbar McGarry, is entitled to a trial even though a lower court dismissed his case. McGarry is claiming his rights were violated under the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude after the Civil War.

McGarry, who was at the time working on a chemistry PhD at the University of Vermont, was arrested in 2008 on a domestic disturbance charge and was sent to jail when bail was denied. As he awaited trial, he claims he was forced to work in a prison laundry at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington for three days a week up to 14 hours. He was paid just 25 cents an hour for six weeks.

When McGarry got an infection on his neck and refused to work, he was threatened with solitary confinement. A month before charges were dropped and he was released in 2009, McGarry sued for $11 million in damages. According to the Second Circuit, McGarry appears to have a pretty strong case:

The Thirteenth Amendment provides that “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Shortly after its passage, the Supreme Court held that the Amendment “is not a mere prohibition of State laws establishing or upholding slavery, but an absolute declaration that slavery or involuntary servitude shall not exist in any part of the United States.” Contrary to the district court’s conclusion, it is well-settled that the term “involuntary servitude” is not limited to chattel slavery-like conditions. The Amendment was intended to prohibit all forms of involuntary labor, not solely to abolish chattel slavery.

McGarry’s allegations state a claim under the Thirteenth Amendment. He alleges that his work in the prison laundry was compelled and maintained by the use and threatened use of physical and legal coercion. He supports his allegations with well-pleaded facts that the defendants threatened to send him to “the hole” if he refused to work and that he would thereby be subjected to 23 hour-per-day administrative confinement and shackles. These allegations plausibly allege “threat of physical restraint or physical injury” within the meaning of Kozminski.

Exploiting prison populations as an involuntary work force seems to be common practice. Recent reports found a private prison in Georgia paid its convicted prisoners and civil detainees $1 an hour for manual labor around the facility. Many states facing budget crises are increasingly using prison labor to fill the jobs of public employees. Because McGarry’s case relies on the fact that he was not “duly convicted” of a crime before he was forced to work, however, it is unlikely that his case will set a precedent that will benefit prison laborers who are incarcerated post-conviction.