On Friday, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled a lower court decision and found that the lower court had wrongly denied Finbar McGarry a chance to argue his case. McGarry alleges that he was forced to work against his will, and under threat, in a prison laundry at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, Vermont, while pending trial on charges related to domestic turmoil. Under the 13th Amendment, states are prohibited from promoting slavery and involuntary servitude.
At the time of the incident complained against, McGarry was a PhD student in chemistry at the University of Vermont. He was arrested on charges related to domestic disturbance and jailed after bail was denied. McGarry says, that at the time, for six weeks, he was forced to work three days a week for up to 14 hours at 25 cents an hour washing the laundry of other inmates.
McGarry said the work was unsanitary and he got an infection on his neck. When he refused to work, prison officials threatened him to send him to “the hole” where inmates were confined for 23 hours a day.
McGarry was released in June 2009 and charges against him were dropped.
However, a month before his release from prison, McGarry sued the state of Vermont and a number of prison officials on different grounds including the infringement of his 13th Amendment right to be free from involuntary servitude. He asked for $11 million in damages.
U.S. District Judge Garvan Murtha in Brattleboro, Vermont, dismissed the case and held that the state was immune to McGarry’s allegations because he had failed to show sufficiently that prison work was akin to African slavery. However, the appeals court disagreed with that decision and Judge Parker, writing for the panel observed, “The Amendment was intended to prohibit all forms of involuntary labor, not solely to abolish chattel slavery.”
The appeals court also said that Vermont could not treat people in custody pending trial in the same manner that it treats convicted prisoners, and cannot compel them to participate in work programs that were designed to rehabilitate inmates. Daniel McLaughlin, McGarry’s court-appointed lawyer said, “We hope that the result of the 2nd Circuit decision will be a change in how the State of Vermont handles pretrial detainees.”