Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The jailors were slave-drivers

You don't see much in the way of Thirteenth Amendment litigation. That amendment prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. A resourceful pretrial detainee brought suit against corrections officers who "compelled him to work in the prison laundry under threat of physical restraint and legal process." The Court of Appeals allows his case to proceed.

The case is McGarry v. Pallito, decided on August 3. According to the plaintiff, officers told him that if he did not work in the laundry, they would place him in administrative segregation, which involves lock-up for 23 hours a day and the use of shackles. He would also receive an inmate discipline report if he refused to work, which might affect his release from prison. In addition,

McGarry alleges that he was compelled to work long hours in the prison laundry in hot, unsanitary conditions. He alleges that the bathroom adjacent to the laundry room was bolted shut and that, although he was required to handle other inmates’ soiled clothing, he was not provided with gloves or access to a sink or hand-cleaning products. He further alleges that he was required to work under these conditions on shifts lasting up to fourteen hours per day, three days a week. Finally, he alleges that his work in the laundry caused a painful staph infection in his neck that manifested itself as a series of reoccurring lesions.

Whether these allegations are true or not, no one knows yet. This case comes before the Court of Appeals (Parker, Katzmann and Wesley) under Rule 12. The question is whether the complaint states a claim under the Thirteenth Amendment. It does. Judge Parker writes that "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. Although passed in response to the scourge of American slavery, the Amendment is 'not a declaration in favor of a particular people,' but extends to 'reach[] every race and every individual.'"

To state the legal standard is to say that plaintiff has a cause of action. The Court of Appeals does not even see this a difficult case. "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.' ... Likewise, McGarry also plausibly alleges facts supporting his assertion that defendants coerced him through legal process by threatening him with DRs, which are alleged to be taken into consideration when making recommendations for a release date and, therefore, lengthen any period of incarceration."

The defendants invoke qualified immunity because (1) the work program advances a legitimate interest in rehabilitation and (2) they claim there is a housekeeping exception for inmates under the Thirteenth Amendment. This will not fly. Plaintiff is a pretrial detainee, not a convict. The state has no right to rehabilitate pretrial detainees, who are presumed innocent. Second, the complaint does not allege that plaintiff was forced to perform routine housekeeping but hard labor. For now, defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity.

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