By Brian Maass

DENVER (CBS4)– Saying they are being used as “slave labor” by the Colorado prison system, three current and one former inmate have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jared Polis, the state prison system and a private prison operator. They are asking that inmates be paid minimum wage, be considered state employees and receive the same benefits as state workers like paid holidays and vacations, and paid sick leave and medical benefits.

(credit: CBS)

“I had a kitchen job which was like going to hell every day”, said Adelbert “Jack” Bassford, who did time in Colorado prisons for white collar crime and was released last year.

He said he was paid .10 cents per hour to sweep kitchen floors, “I resented it every day.”

Bassford along with current inmates Steven Craig Christopher, Cesar Pasillas- Sanchez and Norman Vasquez, filed the lawsuit in Denver district court earlier this month with attorney Tom Carberry.

“We need a statewide conversation about this issue,” said Carberry. “We’re the only country in the whole world that has legalized slavery.”

Carberry said a 2018 vote in Colorado on Amendment A that changed the state constitution paved the way for the new lawsuit. That amendment prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. The Colorado constitution prior to 2018 stated, ”There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

(credit: CBS)

Amendment A changed that language to prohibit slavery in all circumstances. The wording was changed to state, ”There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude.”
The measure passed with 66% of voters agreeing to the change.

However even after that vote, the inmates say they are still paid “slave wages” to work in Colorado prisons which they contend is now a violation of the changed state constitution.
Conor Cahill, press secretary to Gov. Polis, told CBS4,”We are not going to comment on pending litigation.”

A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Corrections said they also would not comment on pending litigation.

Bassford said inmates can either work for the paltry wages, which can add up to as little as .42 cents per day, or if they refuse, he said they lose privileges, visitations, good time earnings, commissary access and other retribution.

“I always viewed it as slave labor,” said Bassford. “I’m a white guy but they did the same thing to the Black guys and Hispanics, Asians- we were all in the same pool. We only worked because we were forced to work. We have no choice. I was sent to prison as my punishment,” continued Bassford, “not to work for the state.”

(credit: CBS)

He said if the lawsuit is successful, it could mean the state would have to cough up another $400- $500 million annually to pay inmates the prevailing minimum wage of $12 per hour.

The legal action also asks that state inmates be reimbursed the difference between minimum wage and what they are currently paid back to 2018, which could add another $1 billion to the public cost.

Asked about the portion of the suit that seeks state employee status for inmates, Bassford reasoned, “You’re either a slave or an employee. What’s in between there? If you’re an employee under labor laws you are entitled to the same benefits as any other employee.”

Carberry said paying inmates minimum wage would address recidivism. He and Bassford say inmates leaving prison now are typically broke and many return to a life of crime to make ends meet.

“Let them have some money and that would greatly reduce recidivism,” said the attorney.

They also said minimum wage payments could allow prisoners to pay restitution to their victims.

Eight inmates in Alameda County, Calif. have filed a similar lawsuit, saying a private vendor in the jail profited off of their forced labor.

The Colorado lawsuit contains a similar accusation against CoreCivic, a for- profit prison operator that runs two Colorado prisons.

Ryan Gustin of CoreCivic told CBS4, “All work programs at our Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) contracted facilities are operated in full compliance with CDOC standards. We set and deliver the same high standard of care – including three daily meals, access to health care and other everyday living needs – regardless of whether an inmate participates in a work or other program. We have worked in close partnership with CDOC for 27 years and will continue to provide a safe and humane environment to those entrusted to our care under the direct supervision of CDOC.”

Bassford suggested the private prison operators’ business model depends on inmates working for low wages.

“We shouldn’t all be forced to work for a corporation that’s using us to make a profit off of slave labor,” he said. “The only reason they can make a profit is because they pay us ten cents an hour.”

Inmates have filed similar actions against CoreCivic in New Mexico and Georgia.

Colorado State Senator John Cooke, a Republican former sheriff who now represents Weld County in the legislature, called the lawsuit “frivolous and ridiculous.” He said inmates “committed a crime against society and are being punished for their crimes. They’re paying their debt to society.” He said “inmates have nothing better to do than sit around and file lawsuits.”

Brian Maass

Comments (17)
  1. Michael Corn says:

    No one points out that the these “jobs” are part-time. Monies from families outside get up to 20% taken for “judicial costs and restitution” (whatever the “victim” claims). There is a 30% unemployment rate in some remote prisons (Trinidad, for example), where it is a “privilege” to earn 60 cents an hour to be an electrician, for example. The room and board comments are present in private, for profit GEO charging $19 per day for the privilege of staying in a halfway house.

  2. PAMELA P MAYEDA says:

    Isn’t this supposed to be “jail”??!!

  3. I was a CO inmate for over 10 years.. while i find it disturbing that CCA, and Geo profit nicely from using inmate labor, its looking like polis is about to cut them off anyway. state prisons can’t run without inmate labor — we do all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, maintenance, you name it. if they had to pay the prevailing wage, doc would be broke. I feel like minimum wage is a good compromise between having to pay the prevailing wage. Getting released broke sucks, since I had to start all over again, no ID’s, no anything.

    Yeah, I made some bad choices, and unfortunately, I can’t ‘un-make’ them.

    to lynn zalesny: tv’s are NOT free, they’re $214 for the same 13 incher you get in the store for $50. there is no internet in prison for inmates, with the sole exception that we were allowed to use the Workforce Center site to job-hunt from pre-release.

    to mike from fort collins: i’m 99% sure i’m not trying to go back to prison to get a job … in your scenario, the pay would be there, but the stabbings, mayhem, etc aren’t worth it to me.

  4. Mike in Fort Collins says:

    A close friend of mine has the perfect solution. We outsource all of our incarceration needs to Yemen and Somalia. These lads in Colorado jails will shape up quickly and be happy if they are making 5 cents an hour.

  5. Steve houck says:

    I did 9 years for my crimes in Florida that’s why I turned my life around so I don’t have to pay for my stupid mistakes. If I go to jail I should not expect to be paid to work.

  6. Lynn Zalesny says:

    They are in jail for punishment. They don’t do hard labor anymore, it’s cruel and unusual punishment. They sure have the benefit of a roof over their head, 2-3 meals a day, free gym privileges, internet, TV, libraries, medical, dental, lest I go on. That is more than our homeless have. Evidently they think it’s free to keep them locked up, they must not realize what it cost the taxpayers because they decided to be a criminal??

    1. define “hard labor”
      inmates do all the non-security work at a facility, and in doing so, save the state a pretty good chunk of change. its not all soaking the taxpayers, there is a river of dirty money that flows through any correctional facility, state or private.
      you want to see where your money is going, check out the amount of waste from a facility. you could feed a homeless shelter for a week or more, on what gets thrown out from one day’s worth of meals in a facility. check out ‘correctional industries’, which on its surface sounds good — train inmates to work in real jobs in the community. they can undercut any bidder, and sell their stuff for half of what it costs from the open market. any time you’re in a public building, more than likely the furniture is made by inmates. inmates at one facility answer the tourism number. they run the commissary, and sell stuff for 3-4x what you pay in the store — the same ramen soup you get for what.. 10 for a dollar, are 23c in there.
      maybe min wage isn’t the answer, but certainly better than 86c a day.

  7. WS Boyle says:

    Give them all of this and watch the crime rate increase 10 fold as individuals will commit crimes gust to get a minimum wage job wilt benefits.

    1. you really think i, or anyone else with half a brain, wants to go (back?) to prison for a job?

      come on, man..

      1. WS Boyle says:

        If the regular job market refuses to hire a reformed convict it will look like an easy way to get a job. 3 time offenders would get lifetime employment.

        1. that is utter insanity. i’m sure i’m not the only ex-con reading this, and if they were to speak up they’d agree with me.
          besides, there’s no need to commit a new crime to go back.. most of us are on parole anyway, and all one has to do is go to the PO, and tell him/her “send me back”.
          but to go back just because i can’t find a job, and i can in there? no. no way. not happening.

  8. Mary says:

    While most people believe that slavery has totally been abolished by the 13th Amendment, the text reads:
    “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

    Not that I’m saying it’s 100% right – but that pesky “EXCEPT AS PUNISHMENT FOR CRIME WHEREOF THE PARTY SHALL HAVE BEEN DULY CONVICTED” makes it LEGAL – and it will take a change to that Amendment – by ANOTHER AMENDMENT (and since I’m not sure in this politically charged atmosphere an amendment stating that “the sun is hot” would pass the amendment process, that’s highly unlikely to occur).

    In addition, since the Colorado constitution got rid of that clause, it’s likely that the argument could be made that the inmates are being charged “room and board” (and medical care and clothing) out of the “minimum wage” – and that they are getting the amount that is left over.

    1. PAMELA P MAYEDA says:

      Mary, your comments are very thoughtful but incarceration itself constitutes a deprivation of certain rights, starting with your very freedom. I do also feel that a minimum wage with no accounting for payment of room and board insults those who struggle on the outside to make ends meet.

  9. Sandy Riley says:

    Fine, give them minimum wage, but then make them pay for their room and board.

    1. me says:

      don’t forget their medical and dental

      1. i paid about 20% of my monthly wage for medical

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