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California Prison Officials Shift Responsibility for Work Injuries to Prisoners

by Derek Gilna

California state prisons are known to be dangerous and violent places, but prisoners employed in industry programs at those facilities are also at serious risk of work-related injuries, as indicated by records maintained by the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA).

According to CALPIA, there have been over 600 injuries suffered by prisoner workers since 2012, ranging from amputations, crushed fingers and eye injuries to carpel tunnel syndrome and other routine injuries and accidents. California prison officials have attempted to deflect blame for many of those incidents, characterizing the injured prisoners as careless or negligent – even though working conditions in most prisons are clearly substandard.

“In spite of training and proper safety equipment provided by CALPIA, there are times when inmates violate training protocols,” remarked CALPIA spokeswoman Michele Kane.

Workers in non-correctional settings are covered by numerous rules and regulations designed to protect them from injuries and provide reasonable financial compensation if accidents occur. The federal Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSHA) publishes comprehensive standards for all industries to improve working conditions, but prisoners typically lack even basic protections.

Ironically, OSHA recently found that guards “at two West Virginia federal facilities still lack safety gloves to prevent sharp-related hazards” that might occur during searches of prisoner property, and issued notices to FCI Hazelton and FCI McDowell for those violations. Meanwhile, prisoners who suffer much more serious work-related injuries must seek redress in court under federal civil rights statutes and the Eighth Amendment, but only after navigating the prison system’s grievance system – which is overseen by prison employees – and with no access to workers’ compensation.

Unfortunately for injured prisoners, the applicable federal civil rights law, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, grants qualified immunity to government officials if they can show that their “conduct [did] not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” See, e.g., Johnson v. Boreani, 946 F.2d 67 (8th Cir. 1991). Some courts have held that even when prison officials are accused of having knowledge of malfunctioning or unsafe work equipment that causes injuries, such conditions do not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.

California officials have been critical of prison work programs for using out-of-date machinery that lacks customary safeguards, and for failing to provide prisoners with basic eye protection. According to The Intercept, “California state law prohibits inmates from receiving workers’ compensation while still incarcerated, meaning that inmates serving life without parole sentences would never be entitled to a penny of compensation even for losing limbs on the job.”

In an article published in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business and Employment Law, then-J.D. candidate Colleen Dougherty criticized the lack of basic protections for incarcerated workers, arguing that “treating prisoners as ‘employees’ without providing the standard employee benefits/protections, while at the same time insulating the ‘employer’ from liability for injuries that occur, creates an environment open to the possibility of exploitation and abuse.”

Dougherty also wrote that the Eighth Amendment should be extended “to cover situations in which a prisoner is forced to work with defective [work] equipment,” and that “providing basic workers’ compensation benefits” would increase protections for incarcerated workers and encourage “an environment of accountability.”

Prisoners in California earn between $.35 and $.95 per hour in most job programs – meager wages indeed for toiling in dangerous conditions that have resulted in hundreds of work-related injuries. 



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