SAN DIEGO — In the latest twist in six years of wrangling over the state's prison labor program, a judge decided Thursday not to order the California Department of Corrections to seek back wages for prisoners from a company that employed them.
Superior Court Judge William Pate agreed with the department that it lacks the authority to file a lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County who were hired to make wire racks.
The state is suing the company, Western Manufacturing, which ran one of the largest such prison labor enterprises, for payments owed to the state and crime victims under the program.
But it has declined to sue for the money owed to prisoners, their families and a restitution fund under a state ballot measure. The measure, passed in 1990, called for the income from the prison labor program to be split five ways.
In a brief court hearing, John Dovey, the state official in charge of the joint venture programs, testified that several lawyers had advised that the state had authority to sue for the funds owed only to the state and crime victims.
"I'm not going to penalize somebody who hires competent counsel and then follows advice of that counsel," Pate said.
Pate's decision signaled a defeat for Robert Berke, a civil rights attorney who has sued over administration of the program, accusing the state of allowing companies to pay prisoners less than it would pay ordinary employees.
Berke said he might seek to intervene in the state's lawsuit against Western Manufacturing, which was filed in Imperial County. A hearing is set for Friday.
"We've been litigating this for six years," Berke said. "The question is whether we can continue."
Under Berke's prodding, Pate has ordered the state to comply with the terms of the 1990 ballot measure that authorized private employers to hire prisoners.
The state has filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the full amount it says it is owed by Pub Brewing, which hired prisoners at Donovan State Prison in Otay Mesa to build vats.
Bankruptcy laws allow the state to claim full payment from Pub Brewing, said Thomas Clifton, outside counsel for the Department of Corrections.
Pate suggested that prisoners might need to file their own lawsuits against Western Manufacturing.