Labor Law Doesn’t Apply if You’re in Prison

It should have been a straightforward case: In 2015, Kendall Charles Alexander, Sr., an African-American man who was incarcerated in New Jersey, filed a lawsuit, Alexander v. Ortiz, alleging that his federal workplace supervisor violated his constitutional rights by discriminating against him on the basis of his race. Yet, in March 2018, New Jersey District Court Judge Jerome B. Simandle found Alexander to be ineligible for equal protection under the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause.

That’s because Alexander was a worker at a textile factory run by UNICOR, the U.S. government corporation that administers an “inmate labor program” in federal prisons. While he was incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI), Fort Dix, a low-security facility just outside of Trenton, New Jersey, Alexander would learn that people like him, working for anything from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour, are not entitled to the same protections as people on the outside. On paper, Simandle dismissed the case on the basis that it conflicted with a Supreme Court precedent. But the judge’s reasoning boiled down to the argument that prisoners are not “employees,” and therefore are not entitled to key protections from discrimination and retaliation.

Alexander—still incarcerated, now at a North Carolina facility—fixed sewing machines at the Fort Dix factory for 46 cents per hour in 2013. He writes to In These Times, “As a very skilled mechanic, my day-to-day work was satisfying.”

In an amended complaint, updated in August 2016, Alexander alleged that the factory manager at the time, Robert Ortiz, was motivated by racial bias when he kept Alexander’s wages at the same rate—46 cents an hour—for seven months, from August 2013 to March 2014. Alexander had been hired because of his advanced skills and previous UNICOR work experience—which also meant that his “pay grade should have been accelerated every…

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