DENVER, February 15, 2022 – This morning, Richard Lilgerose and Harold Mortis, who are currently incarcerated by the State of Colorado, filed a proposed class action lawsuit against the state, Governor Polis, and the Department of Corrections alleging that Colorado engages in persistent and widespread violations of the state’s constitutional prohibition against slavery and involuntary servitude. The plaintiffs are represented by Towards Justice and Maxted Law LLC.
In 2018, more than 66% of Colorado voters voted in favor of Amendment A, which removed the part of Colorado’s constitution that permitted slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. The passage of Amendment A made Colorado a national leader in eradicating the so-called “penal exemption,” a racist stain present in state constitutions and in the U.S. Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment.
The class action complaint alleges that the State of Colorado has ignored the clear will of the voters by continuing to force the people it incarcerates to work against their will under threat of punishment, including extended incarceration and social isolation. Whether motivated by cutting its own costs by paying pennies per hour to a captive workforce or by a desire to assert power over the people it incarcerates, the state has seemingly ignored the mandate of Amendment A by maintaining its facilities through the compelled labor of incarcerated people. For example, while COVID-19 was ripping through the prison where he is incarcerated, Plaintiff Mortis, who is vulnerable to severe illness from the virus, was forced to work in the prison’s kitchen for eight hours per day. When he attempted to protect his health by refusing to work, the State of Colorado told him he’d have to spend more time in prison.
The community of advocates and organizers who built support for Amendment A are speaking out: “We always knew that passing Amendment A was a critical step in ridding our institutions and laws of the evils of involuntary servitude and slavery. But we also knew that passing that law was unlikely to be enough on its own. The cruel use of forced labor is too entrenched in our institutions. It would take people like the plaintiffs here and the community that supported Amendment A standing up to hold the State of Colorado accountable,” said Kamau Allen, lead organizer with the Abolish Slavery National Network and a key organizer who supported passage of Amendment A. “The State of Colorado should observe the will of the voters of this State.”
The state’s conduct is not only illegal, it is also bad policy. “As we continue to advocate for economic and racial justice, we must include everyone,” said Dr. Apryl Alexander, Associate Professor in Forensic Psychology, University of Denver. “Dehumanizing incarcerated individuals through involuntary servitude continues to perpetuate the inequities and injustices that exist in our criminal legal system.”
The plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages. They are asking the court for an order preventing the state from continuing to compel their labor.
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