Prisoners In Beaumont Federal Pen Sue Over Work Conditions

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Earlier this year, we brought you the story of the hundreds of inmates at the maximum-security federal penitentiary in Beaumont who sued the U.S. government claiming officials did not evacuate them during Hurricane Rita and thereby forced them to endure inhumane, medieval conditions.

While that legal battle wages on, Norman Sirak, the same Ohio attorney fighting for those inmates, has now filed a separate lawsuit aimed once again at prison officials in Beaumont. But this time, it's not just about poor conditions. It's also about illegal labor practices.

According to the lawsuit filed in Beaumont federal court on behalf of 47 former and current inmates at Beaumont's medium-security federal prison:

Shortly after Hurricane Rita struck the prison, inmates were evacuated. But within two weeks, officials began to send them back, well before the medium-security facility had been repaired and was fit to house people. The walls were infested with black mold, and food and water was scarce.

Why were the inmates ordered back early? Apparently they were being used to manufacture Kevlar Army helmets for a wholly-owned government corporation and prison-work program called UNICOR, and the company was getting behind on its work order during the evacuation and owed the U.S. Department of Defense the helmets it had paid for.

The first week back in prison, inmates worked 14-hour days, seven days a week. The shifts later dipped to 12-hour days for a dozen straight days before inmates were given a day off. Inmates were pushed to make as many helmets as possible. In two months, the hundred or so inmates pumped out as many helmets as twice as many men working normal 8-hour shifts. For their trouble they earned $1 an hour and $2 an hour for overtime.

"While they worked," it states in the lawsuit, the inmates "were constantly ridiculed, tormented and yelled at because of deadlines on million-dollar contracts. If they faltered, they were told in no uncertain terms that they would be taken to the hole. Duress and coercion were unrelenting and ubiquitous. At the end of the work day, [inmates] would come back to their cells with sore and aching feet, blisters on their hands ... feeling totally exhausted and in many cases, traumatized by the ordeal."

The inmates also claim that a specific federal law aimed at protecting employees of government contractors was violated. They claim they were not paid minimum wage and were worked more than 40 hours a week, both violations. Despite that, UNICOR supervisors told the Department of Defense that the federal law had in fact been complied with, according to the lawsuit.

The inmates are seeking damages, claiming negligence, coercion, malice, and cruel and unusual punishment.

-- Chris Vogel

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