A new federal lawsuit alleges that pretrial detainees at the Broome County Correctional Facility were forced to perform unpaid labor, despite being promised pay by jail officials.

The civil rights action — filed April 18 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York — described the experience of 39-year-old pretrial detainee Thomas Florance while he was held in the jail from November 2023 to February 2024. He was assigned to work for Trinity Services Group, a contracted food services provider in correctional facilities.

The lawsuit alleges that Florance agreed to work after hearing from correctional officers and fellow prisoners that Broome County Sheriff Fred Akshar would begin paying inmates for their labor. On Feb. 14, prison officers placed Florance in disciplinary confinement after he refused to work on his day off, according to the court filing. Attorneys from Legal Services of Central New York, the not-for-profit organization representing Florance, first learned about his employment back in February.

Florance filed an internal grievance against being placed on “keep lock” status — a form of solitary confinement — on Feb. 15. The grievance was returned to him that same day and allegedly included a handwritten message from corrections officer Philip Stephens saying the complaint was “not grievable.” Florance was then held on keep lock for seven days before his release from jail around Feb. 21, the lawsuit claims.

Andrew Pragacz, president of the activist group Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier and an adjunct professor of sociology at Binghamton University, said the organization is aware of many other detainees who were forced to work at the jail.

“This is really not a case just about [Florance],” Pragacz said. “We’ve been hearing about people being forced to volunteer for quite some time. I know that [Akshar] would like to reduce this issue to a single individual, but it is not. We’ve heard through conversations with both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people that unsentenced, unconvicted, legally innocent people have been forced to work and threatened with punishment or punished if they do not work.”

The lawsuit says that Broome County and Trinity Services violated both federal and state law by not paying Florance for his work. Attorneys are asking the court to award monetary compensation, punitive damages and lost wages. Pipe Dream reached out to Trinity Services and the Broome County Executive’s Office, but both did not respond to requests for comment. The Broome County Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Akshar, in a statement to Pipe Dream, disputed several of the lawsuit’s claims. He wrote that any pretrial detainees who wish to work must sign up first and that no workers have ever been promised payment. He also claimed that no solitary confinement unit exists in the jail and any detainees placed in segregated housing are given “at least [seven] hours of free time” for activities, meals, programs and other services with fellow inmates.

He emphasized that Florance was arrested three separate times and spent a total of 50 days in custody, rather than two-and-a-half months straight. Florance spent six hours in custody following his first arrest in November, according to Akshar. The lawsuit said Florance worked approximately 494 hours in total — slightly more than 20 days — for the county and Trinity Services, while Akshar wrote Florance had only worked 14 hours.

“Due to classification and intake procedures, as well as Florance’s start and end dates in the voluntary work program, Florance was only able to work for [nine] days total,” Akshar wrote. “Even if Florance had worked 24 hours a day for [nine] days straight during that period, he would have not even cleared half of what the lawsuit claims. All shifts worked by any incarcerated individual are tracked and recorded in detail and again, [Florance] worked two shifts — 14 hours total — after he volunteered for the program.”

Cassidy Lape, a staff attorney for Legal Services of Central New York, wrote in an email that Akshar’s claim that no pay was promised was inconsistent with other reports to her office from current and former incarcerated workers. Pragacz said he was skeptical of the sheriff’s statement, noting that any incident of forced labor violates the rights of pretrial detainees. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits “slavery [or] involuntary servitude” unless applied to an individual who was “duly convicted” of a crime. Akshar wrote that the Sheriff’s Office is “exploring potential policy changes” to allow individuals incarcerated at the jail to be paid, even if no state guidelines or laws require it.

A number of lawsuits have been filed over the past few years against officer conduct in the Broome County jail. Taej’on Vega, a Black and Latin American individual who was beaten and called racial slurs by jail officers, won his federal lawsuit last year. Makyyla Holland, a transgender woman who was housed with cisgender men and assaulted by officers after refusing a strip search, reached a $160,000 settlement in her lawsuit against the county.

Lape expressed her belief that a ruling in favor of Florance would benefit the community.

“The resolution of this lawsuit in favor of the inmates would have a positive impact on Broome County if those who engaged in the work program at Broome County Jail were compensated for their work,” Lape wrote. “Having funds available to you improves your overall experience while incarcerated and also helps you keep your connections to the community. Further, earning while incarcerated would also assist folks to make the transition more easily from being incarcerated to re-entering the community with less dependence upon other services.”

Editor’s Note (4/29): A previous version of this article mistakenly said Broome County Sheriff Fred Akshar wrote that Florance had worked for nine days. The provided statement said Florance had worked for 14 hours. Pipe Dream regrets the error.