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Santa Rita Jail Accused of Slave Labor in California Class Action

Current and former prisoners at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, California, filed a class action lawsuit on November 18, 2019 against the county, Sheriff Gregory Ahern, and Aramark Correctional Services for violating a California prison labor law, the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Represented by attorney Dan Siegel, eight named plaintiffs contend their unpaid kitchen jobs amounted to slave labor. The county contracts with Aramark, a $16.2 billion private enterprise, to provide meals for the county’s jail populations at $94.5 million a year.

“The work plaintiffs performed was not a part of daily housekeeping duties in the jail’s personal and communal living areas,” reads the complaint. “Rather, it was forced labor for the profit of Aramark.”

The Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California, uses prisoner labor in its industrial kitchen to prepare meals for Aramark. The kitchen also prepares meals for Aramark’s contracted services with Amador and San Joaquin counties. The suit alleges that the company “receives an economic windfall as a result of the uncompensated labor of prisoners confined in Santa Rita Jail.”

“Santa Rita and therefore the county are stealing the wages that have been earned as a result of the work of the prisoners,” stated Siegel. “We speculate that it’s at least millions.”

California passed a prison labor law in 1990 that allows private companies to use prison labor as long as prisoners are paid comparative wages (and overtime) as non-incarcerated workers. The state is allowed to deduct taxes, room and board, and restitution from wages as long as it does not exceed 80% of the total.

The Thirteenth Amendment prohibits slave labor except “as punishment for crime,” which has consistently been interpreted as meaning that convicted prisoners could be worked free of wages. Only 15% of the Santa Rita Jail population had been sentenced for a crime at the time of June 2019.

The suit alleged that workers were threatened with longer sentences, solitary confinement and transfers for those who refused to work. When male workers went on a hunger strike to protest conditions, female prisoners were threatened with the loss of meals if they did not fill in for them, the suit alleged.

The suit was filed on behalf of all the people held in the jail, which included pretrial and immigration detainees, as well as those already convicted. It seeks unspecified damages, as well as an injunction against the illegal labor practice. See Armida Ruelas, De’Andre Eugene Cox, Bert Davis, Katish Jones, Joseph Mebrahtu, Dahryl Reynolds, Monica Mason, and Luis Nunez-Romero et al. v. County of Alameda, Gregory Ahern, Sheriff, and Aramark Correctional Services, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:19-cv-07637. 

 

Related legal case

Armida Ruelas, De’Andre Eugene Cox, Bert Davis, Katish Jones, Joseph Mebrahtu, Dahryl Reynolds, Monica Mason, and Luis Nun-ez-Romero et al. v. County of Alameda, Gregory Ahern, Sheriff, and Aramark Correctional Services, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.)