By Terrie Morgan-Besecker
Lackawanna County’s recent decision to stop sending certain prisoners to work at its recycling center should not impact the defense of a class action lawsuit that alleges the inmates were forced into slave labor, a county attorney said.
Donald Frederickson, general counsel for the county, said the plaintiffs, by law, will not be allowed to introduce evidence of any actions the county took after the lawsuit was filed to support their claims.
"You have to take the situation as it was at the time it was filed," Frederickson said.
The county is one of several defendants named in a 2019 amended lawsuit filed on behalf of the lead plaintiff, William Burrell Jr., and others who were jailed at the county prison for failing to pay child support. The suit alleges the debtors were coerced into working at the center for $5 a day in
violation of anti-slavery, human trafficking and labor laws.
Juno Turner of Towards Justice, a Colorado-based nonprofit worker’s rights group that filed the federal lawsuit, said she’s pleased to learn the county halted the use of inmate labor. She does not necessarily agree that its decision will not impact the case, saying that won't be known until further along in the litigation.
The recycling facility is owned by the Lackawanna County Solid Waste Management Authority, but is operated by a private company, Lackawanna County Recycling Inc., which is owned by Dunmore businessmen Louis and Dominic DeNaples.
The county has supplied inmate labor to LRC free of charge for more than a decade. In exchange, the company agreed not to charge any Lackawanna County municipalities for accepting their recyclables.
The county halted the practice earlier this year because of concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic. County commissioners have now decided to make that decision permanent. That led LRC to announce Tuesday it would begin charging municipalities $20 per ton to accept recyclables.
Frederickson said commissioners decided to stop supplying inmate labor primarily because they are concerned about liability if an inmate is injured and safety concerns should an inmate escape, for instance. He’s confident the county will prevail in the lawsuit, but acknowledged it also played a role in the decision.
"We don't think there is much merit to the lawsuit ... but that was part of what went into consideration," he said.
The lawsuit alleges the county required jailed child support debtors to work at the recycling center before they would be approved for the county’s work release program, which would allow them to earn at least minimum wage at an outside job. It did so for the financial benefit of Louis and Dominic DeNaples and the county.
The suit seeks damages on six counts, including violations of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery and indentured servitude; the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which protects against human trafficking, and several federal and state labor and wage laws.
It names as defendants the county, the solid waste authority, LRC, Louis and Dominic DeNaples and Thomas Staff, a prison employee who oversaw the work release program.
Each of the defendants recently filed motions to dismiss the suit. The arguments vary, but all focused on premise that anti-slavery and human trafficking laws do not apply to prisoners, who can be compelled to work as part of their criminal sentences.
A judge will take the motions under advisement and issue a ruling at a later date.