Oakland civil rights attorney Dan Siegel filed a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday alleging that Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern and Aramark Correctional Services are profiting from free labor by inmates at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.
The suit, which was filed on behalf of eight Santa Rita inmates who do food preparation work at the jail, alleges that Ahern and Aramark Correctional Services are violating the 13th Amendment, which went into effect in 1865 and banned involuntary servitude.
"The U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery after the Civil War, we believed," Siegel said at a news conference at his office in downtown Oakland.
The suit says that in 1990 California voters approved a proposition that allows counties to hire prisoners in their jails to work for private companies, provided the prisoners are paid comparable wages to the companies' non-incarcerated employees.
Siegel said jails that hire prisoners may make deductions for state and federal taxes, room and board, lawful restitution fines of victim compensation and family support.
But he said they must provide no less than 20% of the wages directly to the prisoners and alleged that Aramark and Ahern aren't doing that.
Siegel said he has learned that Alameda County contracted with Aramark Correctional Services as early as July 2015 and the contract allows Aramark to employ Santa Rita inmates without compensating them.
The suit alleges that Aramark employs the eight inmate plaintiffs and other inmates to perform industrial food preparation services and cleaning, with some of that food sent to other jails in the state.
The suit claims, "Plaintiffs are not paid for their work and are forced to work for the profit of a private company under threat of punitive measures by their jailers."
Siegel said Santa Rita inmates prepare and package more than 16,000 meals a day at the jail's industrial kitchen.
Siegel said the work is done by about 60 male inmates and 8 to 12 female inmates. He said he's seeking class action status for the suit so that all the inmate food workers can be included.
Siegel said the inmates who are chosen to do the work generally are minimum security inmates or people who have experience in the food industry.
Siegel said that although the inmates perform work, including overtime, for no compensation, some volunteer to do the work because otherwise they're confined to their cells up to 22 to 24 hours a day.
Siegel accused Ahern of "turning the jail into a profit center."
Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly didn't return a call seeking a comment on the suit.
Officials at Aramark Corp., a food service, facilities and uniform services company based in Philadelphia that is the parent of Aramark Correctional Services, also didn't respond to a request for comment.
The suit seeks unspecified general, special and punitive damages as well as a finding that the practices of Aramark and Alameda County violate the inmates' constitutional and statutory rights.