Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010
After renowned attorney J. Tony Serra spent nine months in a federal
prison camp for not paying his taxes, he calculated how much he was
paid for watering the camp gardens - 19 cents an hour - and thought
it might violate a U.N. standard that says inmates should get fair wages.
But the lawsuit that followed in 2007, which sought higher pay for
all federal prisoners in California, faced even longer odds than many
of the cases in Serra's career, celebrated in the 1989 film "True
Believer." On Friday, a federal appeals court delivered a thumbs-down
verdict, saying the government can set prison wages at any level,
"Prisoners do not have a legal entitlement to payment for their
work," said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco
in a 3-0 ruling.
Federal law, the court said, allows the attorney general to arrange
payments to inmates or their dependents "as he may deem proper." Even
the Constitution's 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery and
involuntary servitude, made an exception for convicted criminals, the
As for the standard adopted by the United Nations at a 1955
conference on the treatment of prisoners, it declared only that
nations should establish a system of "equitable remuneration" for
prison work, without specifying any particular wage level, said Judge
Richard Clifton in Friday's ruling. What's more, he said, the
standard isn't a treaty, isn't binding on the United States and can't
be enforced in court.
Serra's lawsuit sought at least the federal minimum wage, now $7.25
an hour. When he filed the suit two years ago, he said he wasn't
complaining about personal mistreatment at the federal prison camp in
Lompoc (Santa Barbara County) but about systemic unfairness.
His job watering the gardens for five hours a day, Serra said, was
part of a nationwide network of prison camps churning out products
for contractors and federal agencies that might otherwise buy the
same goods from private, unionized plants.
Serra, 74, has represented scores of controversial clients in a
nearly 50-year legal career while living a Spartan life and driving a
rundown car. He successfully defended Black Panther leader Huey
Newton on murder charges and was part of the defense team that won an
acquittal in a 1973 Chinatown murder. James Woods played a lawyer
modeled on Serra in "True Believer," loosely based on the Chinatown case.
Serra pleaded guilty in 2005 to willfully failing to pay $44,000 in
federal income taxes in the late 1990s, his third tax conviction. A
self-described lifelong tax boycotter who had spent four months at
Lompoc in 1974 for a tax protest related to the Vietnam War, he
agreed to pay $100,000 in back taxes after his last conviction.
He said he'd try to follow the law in the future, observing that it's
harder to fight the system when you're locked up in it.
E-mail Bob Egelko at firstname.lastname@example.org.