Your Donation Will Be Doubled. Support Today!

New York Jail Keeps Man in Solitary for Refusing to Work Without Pay, Lawsuit Says

A suit filed this week accuses Broome County Jail staff of using threats of punishment to “create a culture of fear” that forces pretrial detainees to submit to unpaid labor.

Jason Farrar via Flickr

Pretrial detainees at New York’s Broome County Jail are forced to work without pay and threatened with solitary confinement if they refuse to submit to forced labor, according to a lawsuit filed in state court on Thursday. The suit, filed on behalf of Thomas Florance, who says he received no pay for weeks of labor while detained at the facility pretrial despite promises of compensation, alleges the practice violates the Thirteenth Amendment prohibition against slavery other than as a punishment for a crime, New York State Labor Law, and New York’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act. 

This February, after nearly 500 hours of unpaid work in the jail’s kitchen, Florance decided he’d had enough, according to the lawsuit. He refused to work and was kept in “keep-lock”—a form of solitary confinement—for a week until he was able to make bail. 

Florance is seeking lost wages along with compensatory and punitive damages. The complaint, filed by the Legal Services of Central New York, a nonprofit law firm that has sued Broome County multiple times over conditions at the jail, names Broome County and its sheriff, as well as two jail employees and the facility’s for-profit dining services provider, Trinity Services Group. 

The lawsuit alleges corrections officers at the Binghamton, New York, routinely assure detainees they will be paid for their labor at the jail. But once assigned a job, they receive no compensation and are instead forced to work under threat of disciplinary sanctions, including “keep lock.”

“The threats by the Jail staff create a culture of fear among the prisoner workers,” the complaint states. “The prisoners know that if they refuse to work, they will be punished, and if they lose their accumulated good time, will end up incarcerated for a longer period.”

Trinity Services is a major beneficiary of the free labor that results from this arrangement, according to the lawsuit. The contract between Broome County and Trinity requires the jail to provide seven incarcerated people to work in food service, the complaint states, which allows both Trinity and the County to avoid paying minimum wage, state-mandated benefits, and payroll taxes. 

Trinity employees train and supervise the detainees and may “report misconduct or poor prisoner work” to jail staff, which can result in them being placed in solitary confinement, according to the complaint. 

Incarcerated people throughout the country have said that Trinity provides them with inedible food. The company is part of a portfolio run by the private equity firm HIG Capital, which also controls Keefe Group, a commissary company, and Wellpath, a corrections healthcare company—which have been accused of price-gouging incarcerated customers and providing dangerously inadequate healthcare to incarcerated patients, respectively.

For almost two months, Florance worked approximately 32 to 40 hours a week preparing meals for the jail’s detainees. He and the other incarcerated workers could only eat after they finished serving all detainees and corrections staff, which meant they sometimes did not receive a full ration of food, according to the complaint.

The suit says that on February 14, Florance was scheduled to have a day off, but an officer woke him up at 5 AM to work in the kitchen. Florance refused and was placed in solitary confinement. While detained, Florance filed a grievance about his treatment.

“You people think you can make inmates work for no money by threat, duress, and coercion,” Florance wrote on February 15. “Absolutely not.”

In a statement to The Appeal, a spokesperson for the Broome County Sheriff’s Office said that all pre-trial detainees who wish to work agree to do so on a volunteer basis without compensation. The spokesperson denied they are promised pay.

“While the Broome County Sheriff’s Office is currently exploring potential policy changes that would enable incarcerated individuals to be paid, no participants in the voluntary work program are paid or have received any promise of pay,” the spokesperson wrote.

Broome County and Trinity Services Group did not respond to requests for comment by publication. 

Read the complaint: