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Alameda County Sheriff, Aramark Are Forcing Prisoners Into ‘Involuntary Servitude,’ New Lawsuit Says

Some pretrial prisoners and immigration detainees are forced to work without pay in violation of the 13th Amendment, according to attorneys.

Sheriff Greg Ahern at a press conference
Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images.

In a class action lawsuit filed Wednesday, attorneys accused the Alameda County, California, sheriff and Aramark Correctional Services of forcing some pretrial prisoners and immigration detainees to work without pay in violation of the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, except if used as punishment for a person who has been convicted of a crime. As of June, about 85 percent of people at the jail had not been sentenced, according to state data.

“The work plaintiffs performed was not a part of daily housekeeping duties in the jail’s personal and communal living areas,” the complaint reads. “Rather, it was forced labor for the profit of Aramark.”

Attorneys filed the suit on behalf of eight named plaintiffs—pretrial, convicted, and immigration detainees who worked for Aramark while incarcerated at the Santa Rita Jail—as well as all past, present, and future prisoners at the jail who work for Aramark. The complaint argues all should be paid, including those who have been convicted.

According to California state law, prisoners who work for a private company must be paid wages that are comparable to their non-incarcerated counterparts. Jails can deduct from a prisoner’s earnings—such as for taxes and room and board—but a prisoner must receive no less than 20 percent of their wages. Prisoners at Santa Rita Jail clean the kitchen, prepare food for fellow inmates, and make meals for other jails in California, according to a 2017 health inspection report. Aramark is a for-profit food services company which contracts with the Santa Rita Jail.

Sheriff Gregory Ahern and Aramark are also violating the state’s equal pay act by, the suit claims, “assigning women prisoners fewer and less desirable hours to work based on gender.” Female prisoners work a four-hour night shift, and men work an eight-hour day shift. If they were paid, the suit argues, women would be denied the opportunity to earn as much as their male counterparts. 

“This corporation is benefiting from people inside,” Carey Lamprecht, who worked as an investigator for the suit, told The Appeal.

The sheriff’s deputies threatened incarcerated workers with longer sentences or solitary confinement to coerce them to work, the suit alleges. As of the filing date, no prisoner has received a lengthier sentence for refusing to work, according to Lamprecht. The plaintiffs are asking for unspecified damages and for the court to declare these labor practices unconstitutional and illegal.

Sheriff’s office spokesperson Sgt. Ray Kelly confirmed that incarcerated workers are not paid by the sheriff’s office or Aramark. However, he said, workers are not threatened or coerced. On the contrary, he told The Appeal, they are grateful for the opportunities to work. 

“I think it’s all part of a very well-defined movement against county jails in regards to deincarcerating and defunding county jails,” Kelly said of the suit. 

Aramark did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment. The district attorney’s office declined to comment. 

Advocates have previously accused Ahern of operating a jail that routinely subjects prisoners to inhumane conditions. Since Jan. 1, 2014, more than 40 people have died at the jail, 16 of them by suicide, according to a report by KTVU. So far this year, nine people have died at the jail, though the sheriff’s office claimed three of the people died after they were released under the office’s compassionate release program, according to the report. However, all three were listed as in-custody deaths on the coroner’s reports, the report notes.

Prisoners and their families have sued Ahern over a wide range of abuses at the jail, including an incident when deputies allegedly forced a woman to give birth alone in solitary confinement. In July 2017, Candace Steel was eight months pregnant when she was arrested on misdemeanors. While at the jail, she began cramping and could not walk. A jail nurse accused Steel of exaggerating her symptoms, and deputies placed her in an isolation cell as punishment, according to Steel’s suit. She screamed for hours, but was ignored, the suit claims. Deputies finally opened the cell when they heard a baby cry, according to her complaint. The sheriff’s office and other defendants filed a motion to dismiss. The case is still in litigation. 

This month, another suit filed against the sheriff alleged that incarcerated workers at the Santa Rita Jail must wash sheets, towels, and other linens from the coroner’s office, which are soiled in human bodily fluids. “While these linens are transported in bags clearly marked as ‘biohazard,’ these linens are given to jail laundry workers, who have no protective clothing,” reads the complaint.

Kelly, the sheriff’s office spokesperson, confirmed that prisoners wash sheets from the coroner’s office, but denied that they handle biohazardous materials. 

“If they are biohazard they are bagged and destroyed and not opened by inmates,” he wrote in an email to The Appeal. “Sheets that are not considered a hazard are washed by the work crew.”

The conditions at the jail are so dire, according to advocates, that male prisoners launched a work stoppage and hunger strike in late October, which lasted about a week. In response to the men’s strike, Sheriff’s deputies forced women—including two of the named plaintiffs—to work in their place, according to the suit filed this week. The deputies threatened to withhold meals from female prisoners if the women did not work, the suit alleges. 

Kelly told The Appeal that during the strike, female prisoners “stepped up, came forward.”

“They were very helpful to us when the labor strike occurred,” Kelly said. “We did not single them out in any way. As a matter of fact, it was the opposite. We were really happy that they came in.”

For the last two years, activists have called on the county board of supervisors to perform a financial and performance audit of Ahern’s office, but they have failed to do so, said Jose Bernal, senior organizer and advocate with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, one of the groups that launched the #AuditAhern campaign.

“Over 400 prisoners went on strike asking for basic dignity,” Bernal told The Appeal. “Santa Rita Jail is a very dangerous, dangerous place.”