- Associated Press - Thursday, October 30, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by a Nebraska prisoner who argued that he should be making minimum wage for his work behind bars.

Stephen Cavanaugh, 23, sued several state prison officials earlier this year, saying that over the past year, he has been assigned to work as a food server, window washer and a prison yard maintenance worker, with his work time varying between six hours and eight hours a day for between five and seven days a week. Cavanaugh, who represented himself in the lawsuit, said he was paid between $1.21 and $2.25 a day for the work.

His lawsuit said he should have been paid minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and asked a federal judge to award him at least $3,400 in wages he should have earned, plus $350 for his legal costs.

“Cavanaugh continues to be employed on the yard crew and is still paid less than minimum wage,” he wrote in his complaint. “Therefore, the amount of actual damages continues to rise.”

But U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp dismissed the lawsuit Wednesday, saying that while state law sets minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, another state law specifically allows the prison system director to make rules governing the hours prisoners work and how much they’re paid.

The judge also noted that language in state law regarding prisoners contemplates the possibility that some inmates will not earn minimum wage. The language says that “inmates earning at least minimum wage” may have their wages withheld to be deposited in a state victim compensation fund.

“Clearly, if Nebraska’s legislators intended that all prisoners earn minimum wage, this language would not have been necessary,” Smith Camp wrote in her order.

Cavanaugh was sentenced last year to at least six years in prison after being found guilty of two counts of attempted first-degree assault and two counts of use of deadly weapon. Police say Cavanaugh threatened two Grand Island men with a hatchet in July 2012. One of the men had a protection order against Cavanaugh at the time.

Corrections department spokesman James Foster declined comment on the ruling and Cavanaugh could not immediately be reached by phone for comment.

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