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Colorado inmates say state is violating ban on forced work

February 16, 2022 GMT

DENVER (AP) — Two Colorado inmates who say they were pressured into working despite health concerns are suing the state’s prison system, saying it’s violating a constitutional ban on slavery and involuntary servitude.

In the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Denver, Harold Mortis and Richard Lilgerose say they effectively had days added to their sentences when they initially refused to work in 2020 because they lost time credits for not following prison rules. They were also threatened with being placed in isolation for most of the day, with limits on phone calls and family visits, and both resumed work in their prison’s kitchen to avoid further sanctions, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit asks that a judge bar the state from forcing inmates to work and to make the case a class action lawsuit, allowing other inmates to join.

Colorado Department of Corrections spokesperson Lisa Wiley said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

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According to the lawsuit, both Mortis and Lilgerose contracted COVID-19 in October 2020 during an outbreak at the Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City but were told they needed to work in the kitchen the following month despite lingering symptoms because of a staffing shortage.

Mortis, who is 32 and has asthma, feared contracting COVID again, and Lilgerose, 45, who still experiences COVID-19 side effects, told prison workers that working in the close quarters of the kitchen would aggravate mental health problems, including post traumatic stress disorder, the lawsuit said.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery but it still allows forced labor for those convicted of crimes. Colorado had similar language in its state constitution but in 2018 voters backed ending slavery and involuntary servitude under all circumstances.

Voters in Nebraska and Utah have also since passed initiatives amending their state constitutions to do the same. Earlier this month, lawmakers in Vermont backed a similar change to its constitution to make it clear that slavery and indentured servitude are prohibited. Voters will be asked to approve it in November’s election.

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This story has been corrected to say that lawmakers in Vermont have backed changing its constitutional amendment, sending it to voters for approval in November.