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South Carolina Prisoners’ Wage Grievances Not Subject to 15-day Deadline

A South Carolina Appellate Court held that prisoners’ grievances were not subject to a 15-day filing deadline because they did not concern an “incident” but rather challenged the South Carolina Department of Corrections’ (SCDC) policies or procedures.

The ruling was issued in a lawsuit brought by 196 current or former prisoners who participated in a prison industry program involving Williams Technologies, Inc. (WTI) at the Lieber Correctional Institution. They had filed grievances arguing they were entitled under state law to receive prevailing wages for the work they performed.

Prison officials denied the grievances on the merits and for failing to file them within 15 days as required by paragraph 12.1 of Policy GA-01.12. An order from the South Carolina Administrative Law Court upheld the denial, and the prisoners appealed.

The contract between WTI and the SCDC required the company to pay prison officials $4.00 per hour per prisoner, with a base wage of $0.35 per hour. Effective July 1, 1995, South Carolina law required that prisoners employed in industry programs receive no less than “the prevailing wage for work of [a] similar nature in the private sector.”

However, the legislature changed that law, effective July 1, 2001, to allow the SCDC to pay prisoners less than prevailing wages for “service work,” which fit the type of job duties performed under WTI’s contract. The plaintiffs sought prevailing wages for their work prior to July 1, 2001, plus other relief related to unsafe working conditions.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the prisoners that the 15-day deadline did not apply to their grievances. It found the exceptions portion in Policy GA-01.12 indicated that “incidents” do not encompass “policies” and “procedures.”

The appellate court held the challenge to wages received under the WTI contract related to the SCDC’s policies and procedures, therefore applying the 15-day deadline to the prisoners’ grievances was “arbitrary and capricious.” Accordingly, the Administrative Law Court’s order was reversed and remanded to consider the merits of the prisoners’ claims. See: Ackerman v. South Carolina Department of Corrections, 415 S.C. 412, 782 S.E.2d 757 (S.C. Ct. App. 2016), rehearing denied.

Due to the 1995 and 2001 statutes in South Carolina, there has been ongoing litigation over wages paid to prisoners employed in prison industry programs. [See: PLN, Aug. 2017, p.38; May 2011, p.47; June 2005, p.35]. 

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