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March 22, 2007 - San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Lawyer Slams Prison Wages

Tony Serra Files Suit On Behalf Of Federal Inmates For Low Rate Of Pay For Labor By The Incarcerated

By Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

J. Tony Serra, celebrated by filmmakers and fellow lawyers as an advocate for the downtrodden and jailed by the feds for dodging his taxes, was out of prison and back at work Wednesday-suing over the low wages federal inmates earn and citing the 19 cents an hour he got for watering penitentiary gardens.

"I'm angry at a system that perpetuates, from my perspective, slave labor," Serra, 72, said at a news conference in his office on Broadway in San Francisco's North Beach. Behind him was a prisoner's painting showing a shackled and grimacing inmate in the hands of two guards.

He said he wasn't complaining about personal mistreatment-his nine months at the federal prison camp in Lompoc (Santa Barbara County) and one month at a halfway house were "a 10-month vacation," he said-but about systemic unfairness.

In the prison industries program, in which he and other inmates were required to work, he was assigned to water the prison gardens for five hours a day, 20 days a month, and paid $19 each month, or 19 cents an hour, Serra said. He said other prisoners whose work was much more arduous were paid between 5 cents and $1.65 an hour.

"Prison industries is a dirty secret," Serra said, describing a nationwide network of prison camps churning out products made by low-paid inmates for contractors and federal agencies that, he said, might otherwise buy the same goods from unionized private plants.

He also sang the praises of "fabulous jailhouse lawyers" and of a multiracial society of inmates at Lompoc, where "white-collar millionaires and people right out of the ghetto were enjoying themselves together," united by their hatred of prison guards.

It was vintage Serra.

"Tony has come out of his prison sentence even more energized to fight against injustice," said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who testified on Serra's behalf at his July 2005 sentencing hearing. "You put him in prison, he's going to not only look at potential injustices, but he's the kind of person that does something when he gets out. It probably would have been cheaper for the government just to put Tony on probation."

Hollywood latched onto the attorney in the 1989 movie "True Believer," in which James Woods played a character based on Serra, who wins an acquittal in a Chinatown murder case. Adachi, who worked on the real-life case as a college student, recalled that he and others "couldn't find a lawyer in town" to help the defendant before locating Serra.

Serra also successfully defended Black Panthers leader Huey Newton in a murder trial and has represented scores of controversial and unpopular clients while living a Spartan life and driving a rundown car.

His prison lawsuit, like many of his cases, appears to be a longshot. Others have challenged the prison pay system, citing federal minimum-wage laws and other arguments, without success.

Serra's lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in San Francisco, invokes federal labor law, the constitutional ban on slavery and U.N. standards for treatment of prisoners.

Serra's lawyer, John Murcko, said the U.N. standards entitle prisoners to "equitable remuneration"-which he pegged at $25 an hour-and that federal labor law should entitle them to the federal minimum wage, $5.15 an hour. The suit seeks damages for all Lompoc inmates in the prison industries program, a number Murcko estimated at between 300 and 500.

Felicia Ponce, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, declined to comment on the suit or on prison wages.

Serra was freed March 13 after serving a sentence for his third tax conviction, a guilty plea to two misdemeanor charges of willfully failing to pay $44,000 in federal income taxes in 1998 and 1999. He had previously spent four months at Lompoc in 1974 for failing to file tax returns, in a protest against the Vietnam War, and was given probation for filing late returns in 1986.

"I'm a lifelong tax boycotter," he said Wednesday. To maintain his law practice, he said, he'll comply with a court order to pay $100,000 in back taxes, and will "do my best to abide by the law" in the future.

He said his California law license was suspended for six months but has been restored, because his convictions were misdemeanors rather than felonies. That allowed him to practice law during his last months in prison, helping fellow inmates with their criminal cases as well as with divorces, wills and other matters, he said.

After 44 years as an attorney, Serra said, "I want to practice vigorously another 10." That means staying out of prison, he said, because "you can't fight them from inside."

E-mail Bob Egelko at

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