By Sunny Zhou
OAKLAND, CA – The ACLU’s National Prison Project, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California filed an amicus brief in lawsuit before the California Supreme Court this past week in support of a minimum wage for incarcerated workers.
In Ruelas v. County of Alameda, the Court is considering whether California’s minimum wage law applies to people working for private companies while held in pretrial detention.
The ACLU argued in its amicus brief that the CA Labor Code, which authorizes civil action for recovery of unpaid minimum wage in section 1194, should be liberally construed to protect detainees.
According to the amicus brief, Aramark is a for-profit company that provides meals for jails and detention facilities across the US. Aramark profits from a contract with Alameda County—the firm’s annual revenue exceeds $16 billion, according to the ACLU amicus brief—and the corporation does not pay the county’s pretrial detainees working in their plants.
One 2022 report by the ACLU and U of Chicago Law School’s Global Human Rights Clinic found that, across state and federal prisons, incarcerated workers produce $2 billion in goods and $9 billion in services despite being paid “nothing or pennies.”
“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 ACLU National Prison Project Senior Staff Attorney Kyle Virgien, adding, “Paying people for their work is a matter of basic fairness — incarcerated workers are workers.”
One national study by the Prison Policy Initiative 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.”
“Our clients are simply asking for the basic dignity of a wage for their work,” said Dan Siegel, partner at law firm Siegel, Lee, Brunner & Mehta which represents 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,” Siegel added.