ACLU Files Amicus Supporting Minimum Wage for Incarcerated Workers

May 11, 2023 5:00 pm

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The for-profit company Aramark makes $16 billion annually, including through contracts to provide food in jails and prisons across the country.

Among the workers packaging meals for incarcerated people are the pretrial detainees at the Alameda County Jail. Because they are held in jail, Aramark does not pay them a cent, and it claims it doesn’t have to.

In a lawsuit called Ruelas v. County of Alameda, the California Supreme Court is considering whether the state’s minimum wage law applies to people working for private companies while they are held in pretrial detention in California’s jails.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California have filed an amicus brief arguing that the state minimum wage law does apply to this class of incarcerated people.

“Incarcerated people are exploited at every turn by a system that profiteers from their coerced labor, charges exorbitant costs for basic necessities, and deepens debt and poverty for families who step in to take care of their incarcerated loved ones,” said Kyle Virgien, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project. “Paying people for their work is a matter of basic fairness — incarcerated workers are workers.”

A national study found that families of incarcerated people spend $1.6 billion on commissary products to supplement inadequate food and hygiene in jails and prisons — and $1.3 billion for phone calls.

In a 2022 report about incarcerated workers in federal and state prisons, the ACLU and the Global Human Rights Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School found incarcerated workers produce $2 billion in goods and $9 billion in services to prison systems, yet are paid nothing or pennies.

“Our clients are simply asking for the basic dignity of a wage for their work,” said Dan Siegel, partner at Siegel, Lee, Brunner & Mehta, the law firm representing the plaintiffs in Ruelas v. County of Alameda. “Paying people in pretrial detention has positive ripple effects, for their families and for their future re-entry. It is sound policy, consistent with the state’s minimum wage law, that forwards California’s efforts to eradicate poverty and limit income inequality.”

The amicus brief is available here: https://www.aclu.org/documents/amicus-brief-ruelas-v-county-of-alameda

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