NEW YORK (Reuters) - A man who claimed he was forced to do manual labor while detained pending trial can proceed with claims against the state of Vermont under the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude.
In an opinion on Friday, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that a lower court wrongly denied Finbar McGarry a chance to argue that he was forced, against his will and under threat, to work in a prison laundry.
McGarry was a PhD student in chemistry at the University of Vermont at the time of his arrest in December 2008. Denied bail, he was jailed at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, Vermont, pending trial on charges relating to a domestic disturbance.
For six weeks, McGarry said he was forced to work three days a week for up to 14 hours at a time washing other inmates’ laundry at a pay of 25 cents an hour.
The work was hot, unsanitary and resulted in his getting an infection in his neck, McGarry said. If he refused to work, McGarry said prison officials threatened to send him to “the hole,” where inmates were confined for 23 hours a day.
McGarry was released in June 2009 and charges were subsequently dropped.
A month before his release, McGarry sued the State of Vermont and a slew of prison officials on a variety of grounds, including that his 13th Amendment right to be free from involuntary servitude, was violated.
His lawsuit, which he filed himself, asked for $11 million in damages.
In dismissing the case, U.S. District Judge Garvan Murtha in Brattleboro, Vermont, ruled that the state was immune from McGarry’s claims because he had failed to show that the prison work was sufficiently akin to African slavery.
Appeals judges Robert Katzmann, Barrington Parker and Richard Wesley, however, disagreed with the judge’s reading of the 13th Amendment, which was enacted in 1865.
“The Amendment was intended to prohibit all forms of involuntary labor, not solely to abolish chattel slavery,” the opinion, drafted by judge Parker, said.
More broadly, the appeals court said Vermont could not treat people in custody pending trial the same way it treats convicted prisoners, such as compelling them to participate in work programs designed to rehabilitate inmates.
“The Supreme Court has unambiguously and repeatedly held that a state’s authority over pretrial detainees is limited by the Constitution in ways that the treatment of convicted persons is not,” the opinion said.
Robert LaRose, an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Vermont, declined comment on the ruling.
Friday’s opinion reversed the lower court and sent the case back to Murtha for further proceedings.
“We are gratified that the court vindicated the important constitutional principles at issue here,” said Daniel McLaughlin, McGarry’s court-appointed lawyer. “We hope that the result of the 2nd Circuit decision will be a change in how the State of Vermont handles pretrial detainees.”
Reporting By Basil Katz; Editing by Andrew Hay and M.D. Golan