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South Carolina DOC Must Establish Grievance Procedure For Crime Victims' And Prisoner Dependents' Claims Over Prison Industry Wages

by Matt Clarke

On May 7, 2007, the Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled that the South Carolina Department of Corrections (DOC) must allow prisoners' dependents, as well as crime victims entitled to restitution access to the DOC's internal grievance procedure to address issues involving prisoners' wages for participation in a federally-certified prison industry program.

This is an action brought in state court by various class members regarding the disbursement of wages earned by South Carolina state prisoners who participated in the DOC's federally-certified prison industry program (PIP). The subclasses include: (1) prisoners in PIP; (2) dependents of prisoners in PIP who are entitled to compensation such as child support; and (3) crime victims of prisoners in PIP who are entitled to restitution. The trial court did not rule on class certification.

S.C. Code Ann. § 24-3-430 authorizes prisoner labor in private industry, but requires that prisoner laborers be paid at the prevailing rate for private industry at the location of the labor and directs the earnings to be paid directly to the DOC and applied as set forth in S.C. Code Ann. § 24-3-40. § 24-3-40 provides that the gross wages be divided as follows: 20% to court-ordered restitution; 35% to court-ordered, statutory, or agreed child support; 10% to the prisoner or person(s) the prisoner chooses; 10% held in escrow in an interest-bearing account; the remainder must be used to pay appropriate state and federal taxes and any funds remaining thereafter must be remitted to the prisoner.

The PIP in question, the Prison Industries Wire Harness Assembly facility at Evans working for Insilco Technologies Group, paid prisoners 25 and 75 cents per hour training wages during their first 320 hours of employment, then $5.25 per hour for subsequent work. They complained that Insilco was actually paying the DOC $7.17 per hour and $1.92 per hour was being improperly diverted into a DOC surplus fund. The other classes complain that this reduces their money since, by statute, it is to be based upon the gross amount paid the DOC. All three classes complain that the prevailing wage for similar work is $9.84 per hour. Life sentenced prisoners also demanded immediate access to their escrow monies.

The trial court held that the statutes were not passed for the specific benefit of any of the classes and therefore did not create a private cause of action for any of the class members. The court noted that the prisoners could use the prisoner grievance procedure to pursue their claims and implied that reliance on the prisoners' grievances would have to suffice for the other classes' claims as well. The plaintiffs appealed.

The South Carolina Supreme Court held that the dismissal was proper in that the statutes did not create a private cause of action for any of the classes. The prisoners would have to pursue their claims through the DOC's prisoner grievance system with recourse to the Administrative Law Court. However, since a state-created right cannot be denied without affording due process of law, the DOC would have to afford the non-prisoner classes access to their internal grievance procedure to pursue their own claims. The Supreme Court also held that life-sentenced prisoners had no right of access to their escrow funds under the clear wording of the statute.

The Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal, but directed the DOC to afford the non-prisoner classes due process through its internal grievance procedure. See: Torrence v. South Carolina Department of Corrections, Supreme Court of South Carolina, No. 26328, 2007 S.C. LEXIS 197.

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Related legal case

Torrence v. South Carolina Department of Corrections