Famed San Francisco civil rights and defense attorney Tony Serra lost a bid to a federal appeals court today to have low wages for prisoners declared the equivalent of slave labor.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco dismissed a lawsuit in which Serra and two other former prison inmates challenged prison wages as low as 19 cents per hour.
Judge Richard Clifton wrote, “The Constitution does not provide prisoners any substantive entitlement to compensation for their labor.”
The civil rights lawsuit filed by Serra, 74, grew out of his experience in serving a 10-month prison term in 2006 and 2007 for failing to pay $44,000 in income taxes in the late 1990s.
Serra served nine months of his sentence at a federal prison camp in Lompoc and the final month in a halfway house. He said he was paid 19 cents per hour for watering prison lawns and gardens at Lompoc.
Serra said this morning, “I’m grievously disappointed. Prisoners are economic captives and get paid peanuts.”
Serra said, “This ruling fortifies the views of those who say we are approaching the totalitarian type of states that have exploited prisoners economically.”
Serra filed the lawsuit with the aid of volunteer lawyers. He said the case may be at an end because unless he can find more volunteer help, “I don’t think I have the financial wherewithal to petition the Supreme Court.”
The lawsuit claimed the low prison wages violated the constitutional right to due process as well as several international laws. But a three-judge panel of the appeals courts said that none of those doctrines applied to the prisoners’ case.
Clifton wrote, “A prisoner has no basis for asserting a violation of due process simply because he is made or allowed to work for low pay as punishment for a crime of which he was lawfully convicted.”
Serra, who was the model for the defense lawyer in the 1989 movie “True Believer,” was convicted of failing to pay taxes after he filed tax returns for 1998 and 1999 but didn’t pay the $44,000 due.
He said at the time that he didn’t have the money to pay the taxes because he handles many cases for free and doesn’t believe in saving money.
Serra said when he filed the lawsuit in 2007 that being in prison gave him good ideas about civil rights issues to sue about and was like being “a doctor locked in a hospital.”