A class action lawsuit was filed against multiple parties related to the Alameda County Santa Rita Jail for alleged violations of prisoners’ constitutional rights and infringements of California labor laws.
The case, Ruelas v. Alameda County, comes in the aftermath of Santa Rita Jail prisoners’ work stoppage and hunger strike in early November. The main issue in the lawsuit pertains to the relationship between Santa Rita Jail and Aramark Correctional Services, a private, for-profit company that provides meals to inmates.
“(This) case, as far as I know, is an unprecedented case involving the 13th Amendment and third-party contractors,” said Riley Williams, a nonincarcerated member of Oakland’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.
As early as 2015, Santa Rita Jail has contracted out its kitchen and food preparation to Aramark, employing prisoners for labor, according to the suit. The meals produced are not only distributed to inmates in Santa Rita, but are also packaged and distributed to other jails in the surrounding area, according to Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Ray Kelly.
Inmates do not receive monetary compensation for their employment with Aramark and describe their employment as a “volunteer-based program,” according to Kelly. Instead, inmates who choose to work receive extra privileges and may have their sentences reduced.
Law practice Siegel, Yee, Brunner & Mehta is representing the plaintiffs — who are currently or were formerly employed by Aramark while incarcerated in Santa Rita Jail — and alleges this unpaid labor of prisoners violates their 13th Amendment rights. Dan Siegel, a civil rights attorney representing the plaintiffs, alleged that Aramark has “no greater right” to use prisoners’ labor than “any other company.”
“These laws are not waged by individuals who don’t object to their treatment,” Siegel said. “It’s really important people understand we have labor laws in California and this country for the benefit of everyone, not just the workers who work for a particular company.”
Siegel alleged Aramark is subject to California labor laws, and its employees — incarcerated or not — should receive prevailing wages for their work. Kelly said it’s an “interesting legal argument” being made, and the jail is currently reviewing laws regarding paying inmates.
Kelly added none of the goods produced by Aramark are sold on the open market. The food prepared by Aramark is made for prisoners and is part of being “self-sustaining,” while also being “cheaper” for taxpayers, according to Kelly.
“We want prisoners to learn skills … and we also want prisoners to make some money,” Siegel said. “If they make some money while they’re in jail, … when they get out, they (will) have some money to take care of themselves and their families.”