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Alabama Supreme Court Sidesteps Merits of Suit Challenging Contracted Prison Labor

The Alabama Supreme Court denied class certification and sidestepped ruling on the merits of a prisoners claim that prison officials illegally contracted out his labor to a private company.

Before the Court was the appeal of prisoner Darrell Latham, who sought a declaratory judgment that the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Alabama Correctional Industries (ACI) do not have authority to contract prisoner labor to a private company. Latham also sought back pay.

In 2003, ACI and the DOC entered into a contract with Wilson Sporting Goods Co. to have prisoners in DOCs custody inflate and package various sports balls and package other sports equipment for Wilson. Under the contract, Wilson would ship sports equipment, deflated sports balls and the necessary packaging to DOCs Decatur Community Correctional Facility (DCCF).

Prisoners would inflate the balls and package them. They would also occasionally re-label and package baseball bats and other sports equipment. The packaged equipment would then be loaded onto pallets to be shipped back to Wilson. While ACI received a per item rate of pay, prisoners were only paid up to $.25 per hour. All prisoners, upon arrival at DCCF, were assigned to ACI for approximately 90 days.

Dissatisfied with his status as a slave for the prison industrial complex, Latham filed suit and sought class action status as the representative. The Montgomery County Circuit Court granted summary judgment, holding Latham was not a proper class representative as his claims were due to be dismissed.

The Alabama Supreme Court held that the State is immune from any lawsuit that would directly affect a contract or property right of the State or result in the plaintiffs recovery of money from the State. The Court found a claim for back pay was a claim for compensatory damages that is barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. As for damages, the Court held, Lathams claim was properly dismissed.

The Court then turned to the declatory judgment claim, which is not barred by sovereign immunity. The circuit court had held that because Latham was no longer a prisoner at DCCF, he could not represent the class. Latham did not distinguish his individual and class claims in his pleading or on appeal.

Rather then look into the merits of his claims, appoing counsel, or allow Latham, who acted pro se, to amend his pleadings to have those merits heard, the Supreme Court went procedural. The Court sidestepped the merits by citing Rule 28(a)(10), Ala.R.App.P., which requires an appellants brief contain The contentions of the appellant/petitioner with respect to the issues presented, and the reasons therefore, with citations to the cases, statutes, or other presented insufficient argument or citations to support his contention he is a proper class representative. the Supreme Court affirmed the circuit courts dismissal.

It should be noted that in a concurring opinion, Justice See pointed out the main opinion is not to be read as an imprimatur on DOC and ACIs practice of contracting prison labor for the benefit of private business, which would be violative of various statutes cited by Justice See. See: Latham v. Department of Corrections, 2005 WL 2811794 (Ala., 2005).
It should be noted that the Ashurst Summers Act, 18 USC §§ 1761-62, prohibits the transportation in interstate commerce of prisoner made goods unless the prisoners are paid the prevailing wage or the minimum wage, whichever is higher. However, that is a criminal statute and the last prosecution for its violation was in 1929.

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Related legal case

Latham v. Department of Corrections