The government got 10 months of J. Tony Serra’s freedom for his long-running tax boycott. This week, the rebel lawyer from San Francisco struck back with an attempt to get more money for the hours he worked behind bars.
Standing in his office before a life-size painting of an orange-clad inmate and two shadowy guards on a cellblock, Serra talked Wednesday about the class action he just filed against officials who run the federal prison where he made his extremely humble home for much of the past year.
The criminal defense lawyer wants at least the minimum wage for himself and other inmates who’ve worked in prison industries at the Lompoc low-security federal prison, located about 55 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, Calif.
Because of Serra’s age and physical condition — he’s 72 years old — he escaped some of the less desirable jobs at Lompoc. Instead, he was assigned to water the flowers on the prison grounds. Though Serra called it “an aesthetic experience” that enabled him to stand under eucalyptus trees and watch hawks flying overhead, he complained that the job paid less than a quarter an hour.
Oakland, Calif., solo John Murcko and two other attorneys filed the suit Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on behalf of Serra plus an estimated 300 to 500 inmates in the proposed plaintiffs’ class. Lompoc, Serra said, operates a large dairy farm that produces meat, milk and cheese, and runs a factory that manufactures electronic cables. The facility also has inmates tending to alfalfa fields to produce feed for its dairy cows. Serra said that system-wide, the federal prison workforce generates about $65 million per year in net profits. But he compared compensation for inmates at Lompoc to slave wages.
“I got 19 cents an hour. Some people get 5 cents, and some get, oh boy, a buck sixty five!” the long-haired lawyer said sarcastically.
Serra called the prison’s pay practice “shocking, disgusting [and] a disgrace,” noting that inmates come back from work dirty, tired and occasionally injured.