It’s been 147 years since slavery was abolished in the United States, but one man believes a Vermont prison treated him as if he were back in the 1800s. Finbar McGarry has filed a lawsuit against the state’s prison system and a number of prison officials, alleging they violated his 13th Amendment rights — under which all Americans are guaranteed freedom from “slavery or involuntary servitude.”
McGarry, in the $11 million lawsuit, claims he was forced to work for hardly any pay under unsafe conditions at a Vermont jail. According to CBS, he was arrested for a domestic disturbance in December 2008. He spent six weeks in prison before the charges were ultimately dropped, but while serving time, the Ph.D student at the University of Vermont alleges he was forced into 14-hour shifts in the prison laundry, paid a paltry 25 cents an hour to work in unpleasant, unsanitary conditions, which resulted in him getting an infection in his neck. If he refused to work, he was threatened with solitary confinement.
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Although a lower court initially dismissed McGarry’s lawsuit, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found Friday that McGarry should be allowed to bring forth his case. Speaking to WBZ radio, David Frank of Lawyer’s Weekly said: “You do have to give the plaintiff in this case a lot of credit. He’s come up with a very creative argument.” He explained that the fundamental issue wasn’t one of slavery, but innocence. “Unless a judge or jury finds you guilty, that presumption of innocence gives you some protection,” he added. “It’s significant difference that the law recognizes.”
Frank warned that there is “no doubt” that should McGarry’s lawsuit prevail, “it would be a very significant message for jails and houses of correction that hold people pre-trial. “The message would be: you can’t force people to work while they’re awaiting trial, whether you’re going to pay them 25 cents an hour or $25,000 an hour.”