The rights of inmates awaiting trial are currently a topic for debate as a man who was arrested, jailed and put to work in the prison laundry before his case was ultimately dismissed is suing the state for violating his Constitutional rights by essentially enslaving him.
Vermont resident Finbar McGarry was a graduate student at the University of Vermont in December 2008, around the time of his arrest. After being charged with death threats at home as well as at the university that recently fired him, and shooting a gun, he was held in Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, Vermont.
McGarry’s allegations of slavery stem from the time he was jailed awaiting trial until he was released the following summer, after the case against him was dropped. During the time he spent in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, he was forced to work in the prison’s laundry at a rate of 25 cents an hour — failure to comply would have resulted in solitary confinement, which many people classify as torturous conditions.
In November of 2009, McGarry brought a suit against the state for slavery, in federal court in Brattleboro, Vermont. At the time, in an opinion, US Magistrate Judge John Conroy wrote that McGarry’s 13th Amendment rights had not been violated, because the conditions in which he was forced to provide labor prior to a conviction do not resemble the conditions that inspired the 13th Amendment.
This week, an appeals court overruled the initial judge’s opinion, with an appellate judge ruling:
“Contrary to the district court’s conclusion, 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.”
ABC quotes Columbia Law School professor Jamal Greene, who explains the need for a differentiation in treating prisoners who have been convicted of a crime versus those who have been jailed awaiting trial:
“If you haven’t been convicted at all, your pretrial detention is not a form of punishment… The degree to which his liberty can be restricted is directly tied to the needs that required him to be detained. So if he was detained only to secure himself for trial, he can’t be detained for punishment.”
McGarry, who is bringing his case pro se, says that the restrictions placed by the 14-hour days of work severely impacted his ability to contact his public defender, jeopardizing his case. The former grad student is suing the state for $11 million.