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No Right to Compensation for Work in Prison under the Constitution or International Law

By Brandon Sample

Federal prisoners do not have a right to be compensated for their work under the U.S. Constitution or under international law, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided April 9, 2010.

A group of current and former federal prisoners sued the Director of Bureau of Prisons arguing that their low prison wages violated the Fifth Amendment and international law. The district court dismissed the prisoners' action, and the prisoners appealed.

On appeal, the prisoners renewed their argument that the Fifth Amendment entitled them to a fair wage. The court of appeals, like the district court, though, rejected the prisoners' challenge. "The Constitution does not provide prisoners any substantive entitlement to compensation for their labor," the court wrote. "Although the Constitution includes, in the Thirteenth Amendment, a general prohibition against involuntary servitude, it expressly excepts from that general prohibition forced labor 'as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.'"

The prisoners' international law claims were also met with rejection. The prisoners, for instance, claimed their low wages violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But treaties, the court explained, do not confer rights absent Congressional implementation unless they are self-executing, which this treaty was not.

The prisoners also argued that "the customs and usages" among the nations of the world entitled them to higher wages. The court, however, refused to entertain this challenge. The Alien Tort Statute (ATS), 28 U.S.C. § 1350, was the only possible vehicle for this kind of claim, and the ATS was unavailable to the prisoners because they were not "aliens." Furthermore, the court refused to read a domestic party plaintiff exception into the ATS for the purpose of the prisoners' claims because Congress had unambiguously given the Attorney General the authority to set prisoner wages.

The judgment of the district court was accordingly affirmed in all respects. See: Serra v. Lappin, 600 F.3d 1191 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Serra v. Lappin