Private prison profiteers have for years subjected immigrants they detain for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to forced labor. In states including California, Georgia, and Washington, immigrants have been paid as little as $1 a day to cook, clean, and maintain these facilities, in what immigrant and human rights advocates have called a “scheme to maximize profits.” Now, a court is ordering one of those private prison profiteers to pay up.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said on Wednesday that a federal jury determined GEO Group violated the state’s minimum wage laws in paying immigrants detained at the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC) $1 a day for their forced work. The statement said the jury has ordered the private prison profiteer to pay detained immigrants the minimum wage, or higher. The judge overseeing the case will also determine “how much GEO unfairly gained from its wage law violations spanning more than 15 years,” which could total millions, the Associated Press (AP) said.
“At trial, several former and current GEO staff testified that GEO chose to pay detainee workers only $1 per day, despite the fact that GEO knew it had the ability to pay more,” Ferguson’s office said. Prison Legal News reports that GEO Group reported revenues of $2.477 billion in 2019 alone. “Detainees perform most of the work necessary to run the facility,” Ferguson’s office continued, including food service, laundry service, cleaning, and maintenance. “Detainee workers even provide thousands of haircuts per year at the center’s barbershop, staffed entirely by detainees.”
This forced work has often been erroneously referred to as “voluntary,” even as detained immigrants have said in other lawsuits challenging the $1 wage that they were “threatened with solitary confinement and the loss of access to basic necessities, like food, clothing, products for personal hygiene, and phone calls to loved ones” if they refused to work. Detained immigrants have also said they have had no choice but to work, in order to purchase basic items from the commissary.
“After a two-and-a-half-week trial, the jury decided the multi-billion dollar company must pay all its workers Washington’s minimum wage of $13.69 or more,” Ferguson’s office said. “Now, it is up to U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan to determine how much GEO unfairly gained from its wage law violations spanning more than 15 years. The Attorney General’s Office is requesting that this payment reimburse detainee workers and Tacoma community members.”
The release said the latter is intended for “job seekers in the community surrounding the detention center who may have lost employment opportunities because of GEO’s practices.” In an ideal world, we’d move away from having to depend on private prisons locking up immigrants for the federal government in order to create jobs. Especially when it relates to a facility like NWIPC.
Just this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned GEO Group about a toxic chemical used to clean numerous surfaces and microwaves widely used by immigrants at the facility. The EPA had already found GEO Group violated the law by misusing toxic chemicals at another one of its sites in California. “Migrants who participated in the ‘volunteer’ work program were given HDQ Neutral in 32-ounce spray bottles and mop buckets, often without safety labels or instructions attached, without being required to wear the necessary protective equipment when handling the industrial pesticide,” Earthjustice said at the time. Notice that “volunteer” bs again.
Both California and Washington leaders have taken significant steps to end the use of for-profit prisons in their states. In the former, a law passed in 2019 was hailed as “a model for the rest of the nation.” GEO Group sued, of course, initially losing following an October 2020 ruling from a George W. Bush-appointed judge. However, a recent ruling from a panel of conservative judges has for now blocked the law. It’s unclear if that has yet been appealed. In Washington, a law signed into place earlier this year also phases out for-profit detention, including NWIPC. “Washington has not supported use of private prisons, and this bill continues that policy by prohibiting private detention facilities from operating in the state,” Gov. Jay Inslee said, according to the AP.
Private prisons should not exist—and in the meantime, these companies need to pay up for their abuses. “This multi-billion dollar corporation illegally exploited the people it detains to line its own pockets,” Ferguson said in the statement. “Today’s victory sends a clear message: Washington will not tolerate corporations that get rich violating the rights of the people.”