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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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