California agrees to let prison laborers leave early

California prison officials have agreed to allow minimum custody inmates who provide the bulk of the state prison system’s menial labor force to be eligible for early release.

The settlement agreement, filed in federal court Friday, would affect an estimated 4,300 inmates in the state’s crowded prison system, inmate lawyers said. If federal judges concur, those inmates could in January start earning sharply reduced sentences.

Previously, officials with Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris’ office argued to the court on behalf of the corrections department that minimum custody inmates provide a “vital” labor force in prisons and should not be allowed to further reduce their sentences. Their jobs as prison janitors, cooks and groundskeepers earn them pay ranging from 8 cents to 37 cents per hour. They currently can reduce their sentences by a day for every day they are in minimum custody.

A trio of federal judges in February had ordered the state to allow minimum custody inmates to earn up to two days off for every day they spend in prison with good behavior, the same benefit given to low-security prisoners who work at state-run firefighting camps. The order was part of a package deal that gave the state an extra two years to reduce California prison populations to a level the courts consider safe.


Among those who had been denied the court-ordered early release was an inmate who had suffered major injuries this summer while fighting a wildfire. Because the injury put him back within the general prison population of other minimum custody inmates, he said he lost the fire-duty credits he had been signed up to receive, and his sentence was extended three months.

Inmate lawyers said California officials became amenable to a settlement after the state’s vital labor force argument became the subject of growing media attention.

“This is really fair, because [California’s] previous position had been they were going to deny the credits in order to preserve the prison workforce,” said attorney Rebekah Evenson of the Prison Law Office.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the settlement came out of court-ordered negotiations with inmates’ lawyers. The settlement filed in court must be approved by federal judges.

Inmate lawyers agreed to withdraw their motion to force compliance with another part of the order to make sex offenders eligible for early release credits in the likelihood that it would be denied, Evenson said.