An appeals court has reinstated a case against the South Burlington, VT jail for slavery, for forcing inmates in pretrial detention to do hard labor:
A man who claimed he was forced to do manual labor while detained pending trial can proceed with claims against the state of Vermont under the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude.
In an opinion on Friday, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that a lower court wrongly denied Finbar McGarry a chance to argue that he was forced, against his will and under threat, to work in a prison laundry.
For six weeks, McGarry said he was forced to work three days a week for up to 14 hours at a time washing other inmates’ laundry at a pay of 25 cents an hour.
The work was hot, unsanitary and resulted in his getting an infection in his neck, McGarry said. If he refused to work, McGarry said prison officials threatened to send him to “the hole,” where inmates were confined for 23 hours a day.
His lawsuit, which he filed himself, asked for $11 million in damages.
In dismissing the case, U.S. District Judge Garvan Murtha in Brattleboro, Vermont, ruled that the state was immune from McGarry’s claims because he had failed to show that the prison work was sufficiently akin to African slavery.
Appeals judges Robert Katzmann, Barrington Parker and Richard Wesley, however, disagreed with the judge’s reading of the 13th Amendment, which was enacted in 1865.
“The Amendment was intended to prohibit all forms of involuntary labor, not solely to abolish chattel slavery,” the opinion, drafted by judge Parker, said.
More broadly, the appeals court said Vermont could not treat people in custody pending trial the same way it treats convicted prisoners, such as compelling them to participate in work programs designed to rehabilitate inmates.
The Supreme Court has recognized that you cannot treat people in pretrial detention the same as people who are serving a sentence, and if this stands, this will make a major change in the operation our prison industrial complex.