updated 3/28/2007 6:18:34 PM ET 2007-03-28T22:18:34

Sex offenders being held at a state facility are demanding their pay be restored from $2 per hour to the minimum wage, which they had received until recently.

Offenders at Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center argue the state’s $6.50 per hour minimum wage — which they earned until last month — should apply to them since they are civilly committed patients and not inmates.

Program Director Steve Watters ordered the pay cut as a cost-cutting measure.

More than 50 offenders committed to the center have filed complaints with the state Equal Rights Division, which is investigating the matter, agency spokesman Dick Jones said.

The offenders have served their prison sentences, but authorities say they are too dangerous to be released until they undergo treatment at Sand Ridge in Mauston, about 80 miles northwest of Madison. They perform jobs around the facility as part of their treatment.

Work by inmates has long been exempt from labor laws, and two federal judges in Wisconsin ruled last year the Fair Labor Standards Act, which includes the federal minimum wage, does not apply to committed patients.

Minimum wage doesn't apply, lawyers say
State lawyers have determined that Wisconsin’s minimum wage law also doesn’t apply, in part because patients receive food, housing and medicine, Watters said in a Jan. 30 memo.

The offenders say that doesn’t apply to them.

“I am not an inmate or a prisoner,” Robert Michael Fowler wrote in his complaint earlier this month. “I am being discriminated against because of the mental disability (sexual violent person) that the state says I have.”

Fowler, 42, was committed in 1999 after he completed a sentence for a 1989 conviction for second-degree sexual assault.

Wisconsin law allows the state to indefinitely hold convicted felons determined by courts to be sexually violent and likely to reoffend. The offenders can petition for supervised release after 18 months but most are held far longer.

Eighteen other states have similar civil commitment laws but groups such as the National Conference of State Legislatures do not track what patients in those programs are paid.

Watters told the patients they would still be earning more than Wisconsin prison inmates, who make as little as 5 cents an hour.

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