The year was December 2008, and University of Vermont graduate student Finbar McGarry faced a dilemma. An inmate in a Vermont county jail, McGarry was required by correctional authorities to work in the jail laundromat for 25 cents per hour. If he refused to work, McGarry would have been thrown in solitary confinement—otherwise known as “the hole.” Not a pleasant alternative.
There’s plenty of legal and historical precedent for putting convicts to hard work in America. Angola prison in Louisiana is perhaps America’s most notorious work farm—where not only do the inmates farm their own food, they make the prison boatloads of money by putting on an annual rodeo.
The iconographic chain gang lingers in our consciousness, thanks to films like Cool Hand Luke.
Here’s the catch: Paul Newman’s Luke, anti-heroic as he may have been, was a convicted thief. He had a definitive sentence, as do most real-life convicts condemned to hard labor in America.
McGarry had no such sentence. He was certainly facing grievous charges—he had allegedly discharged a gun in his home while threatening to kill his family, then turned his anger on a school official.
But McGarry was still awaiting trial. He had yet to be convicted.
Upward of 1,000 inmates trapped in jail pre-trial posed little to no danger to the public—more than five percent of the county jail population. They were simply being held because they were too poor to pay for bail.
Eventually, McGarry relented and chose to work in the laundry rather than face a prolonged and brutal spell in “the hole.” During the course of his work, McGarry says he contracted a serious MRSA lesion on his neck—a potentially deadly bacterial infection.
McGarry’s charges were ultimately dropped, and he was released. In 2009, he pressed a suit against his former captors in Brattleboro, Vermont, federal court for $11 million—claiming he was made a slave in violation of his 13th Amendment rights. The Brattleboro judge ruled that McGarry’s constitutional rights had not been violated, but that finding was overturned on appeal last week.
McGarry’s suit brings new life to the issue of pre-trial detention—the incarceration of people who are awaiting trial, yet to be convicted of a crime—which was already mired with debate and controversy.
A recent report by corrections expert Dr. James Austin, examining the jails of Los Angeles County (which suffer from notorious violence and overcrowding), found that upward of 1,000 inmates trapped in jail pre-trial posed little to no danger to the public—more than five percent of the county jail population. They were simply being held because they were too poor to pay for bail.
Extrapolate those numbers to the rest of the country, and many, many thousands of people, potentially, are facing a predicament like McGarry’s.
So could McGarry’s suit help win new rights for pre-trial detainees?
Back in 2009, that prospect seemed distant. Vermont federal magistrate Judge John Conroy threw out McGarry’s case because doing the laundry in jail “was nothing like the slavery that gave rise to the enactment of that [the 13th] amendment.”
However, just last week, upon appeal, Conroy’s original ruling was overturned.
“Contrary to the district court’s conclusion, it is well-settled that the term ‘involuntary servitude’ is not limited to chattel slavery-like conditions,” stated the appeals court’s opinion. “The amendment was intended to prohibit all forms of involuntary labor, not solely to abolish chattel slavery.”
Of course that decision could still be reversed by a higher court. But, for now at least, there’s still a chance that McGarry’s suit can help remind the criminal justice system that the tenet “innocent until proven guilty” should apply to our jails too.
Is “innocent until proven guilty” more of a concept or a reality in America? Leave some thoughts in COMMENTS.
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Matthew Fleischer is a former LA Weekly staff writer and an award-winning social justice reporter in Los Angeles. Email Matt