Lawyer slams prison wages
Date: Thursday, March 22 2007
Lawyer slams prison wages, Tony Serra files suit on behalf of federal inmates for low rate of pay for labor by the incarcerated
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007
J. Tony Serra, celebrated by filmmakers and fellow lawyers as an advocate for the downtrodden and jailed by the feds for dodging his taxes, was out of prison and back at work Wednesday -- suing over the low wages federal inmates earn and citing the 19 cents an hour he got for watering penitentiary gardens.
"I'm angry at a system that perpetuates, from my perspective, slave labor," Serra, 72, said at a news conference in his office on Broadway in San Francisco's North Beach. Behind him was a prisoner's painting showing a shackled and grimacing inmate in the hands of two guards.
He said he wasn't complaining about personal mistreatment -- his nine months at the federal prison camp in Lompoc (Santa Barbara County) and one month at a halfway house were "a 10-month vacation," he said -- but about systemic unfairness.
In the prison industries program, in which he and other inmates were required to work, he was assigned to water the prison gardens for five hours a day, 20 days a month, and paid $19 each month, or 19 cents an hour, Serra said. He said other prisoners whose work was much more arduous were paid between 5 cents and $1.65 an hour.
"Prison industries is a dirty secret," Serra said, describing a nationwide network of prison camps churning out products made by low-paid inmates for contractors and federal agencies that, he said, might otherwise buy the same goods from unionized private plants.
He also sang the praises of "fabulous jailhouse lawyers" and of a multiracial society of inmates at Lompoc, where "white-collar millionaires and people right out of the ghetto were enjoying themselves together," united by their hatred of prison guards.
It was vintage Serra.