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Idaho Supreme Court Holds Prisoners Have No Right to Paid or Unpaid Employment

by Matt Clarke

On August 5, 2020, the Idaho Supreme Court held that state prisoners have no right to paid or unpaid employment despite a state law stating that the board of correction “shall provide for the care, maintenance and employment of all prisoners,” Idaho Code § 20-209.

Idaho state prisoner Dan Goodrick filed a pro se federal lawsuit asserting “all Idaho prisoners had a state-created liberty interest in being employed arising from Idaho Code [§] 20-209.” The federal district court certified to the Idaho Supreme Court the question of whether § 20-209 requires the board “to provide employment for all prisoners and, if so, what is the minimum the board must do to implement the statute’s mandate?” Neither court appointed Goodrick an attorney, so he had to present the issue pro se.

The Supreme Court noted that § 20-209 uses the word “shall,” making the requirement of providing employment mandatory. However, the statute does not define “employment.” To determine whether “employment” in the statute meant a “paying job” as Goodrick asserted or something else, the court examined other statutes on the same subject in pari materia.

The court did not give a detailed explanation of which statutes were examined other than § 20-242A, which states in part that “No inmate compensated under this section shall be considered an employee of the state board of correction, nor shall any inmate be eligible for worker’s compensation under 72 Idaho Code. ...” Nonetheless, it concluded that the unspecified statutes, read in pari materia, made it clear that even when the board is “authorized to create prisoner employment opportunities, including paid employment—prisoners are not employees.”

The court held that, in the prison setting, prisoner employment meant “(1) labor prescribed by the Board; and (2) specific legislative work programs managed by the Board.” The former is established by “the relationship between the Board and prisoner in its custody. A relationship that mandates that prisoners are required to perform labor at the direction of the Board” under I.C. § 20-101. In other words, forced labor or slavery.

“Put differently, the legislature did not create a right to work for prisoners, rather it empowered the Board to assign work to prisoners.”

The latter includes programs such as the inmate incentive pay program and the Correctional Industries Act, I.C. Sections 20-242A and 20-408. None of these programs require the Board to enroll prisoners in the program nor is the Board required to pay prisoners enrolled in the programs, although prisoner pay is contemplated in the statutes. They merely authorize the Board to make employment in the program available to prisoners without requiring a specific type or length of employment.

Further, while the question was pending before the court, the legislature amended Section 20-209 to state that it does not create a right to employment. Therefore, the Supreme Court held that § 20-209 did not create a right of paid or unpaid employment for prisoners or establish an employer-employee relationship between the Board and any prisoner. See: Goodrick v. Field (In re Order Certifying Question to the Idaho Supreme Court), 469 P.3d 608 (Idaho 2020).

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Related legal case

Goodrick v. Field (In re Order Certifying Question to the Idaho Supreme Court)