Moral Low Ground


Thousands of Immigrants Detained in Private GEO Group Prison Invoke Anti-Slavery Law in Class-Action Forced Labor Suit

Protesters at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Denver Contract Detention Facility, owned and operated by the private prison company GEO Group. (Photo: Justin Valas/Flickr CC)

A landmark class action lawsuit filed on behalf of tens of thousands of immigrant detainees accuses a private, for-profit prison company of violating anti-slavery laws by forcing them to work for free or as little as a dollar per day.

The Washington Post reports the lawsuit against GEO Group, originally filed in 2014, reached class-action status this week with a ruling by US District Judge John Kane. The ruling will allow as many as 62,000 immigrants who were imprisoned at the company’s Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colorado, to sue GEO Group for alleged violations of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

The lawsuit alleges six detainees at the 1,500-bed facility, which is under contract with US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to jail immigrants awaiting court judgment, were randomly selected every day and forced to clean toilets and perform other manual labor. Plaintiffs said they were forced to scrub toilets without pay, with others performing tasks including food preparation and laundry for $1 a day. Those who refused to work were threatened with solitary confinement, the suit claims. It further accuses GEO Group of breaking state minimum wage laws by failing to pay detainees at least $9 per hour as required under the law and additionally claims GEO Group unfairly enriched itself from the labor of 2,000 detainees paid little or nothing.

The suit was originally filed in 2014 by nine immigrants seeking more than $5 million in damages. That amount is likely to increase significantly with the massive expansion enabled by Kane’s ruling, which marks the first time a class-action lawsuit accusing a US private prison company of forced labor has been given the green light to proceed.

Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, a Colorado-based nonprofit group that represents low-wage workers including undocumented immigrants, called the ruling “obviously a big deal.”

“Certification of the class is perhaps the only mechanism by which these vulnerable individuals who were dispersed across the country and across the world would ever be able to vindicate their rights,” DiSalvo told the Washington Post.

“It’s a huge step forward for all the detainees,” Brandt Milstein, a Boulder, Colorado attorney who is one of several lawyers representing the class in US District Court in Denver, said of the lawsuit in an interview with the Denver Post. “This lawsuit is a win for immigrants because it exposes the true cost of detaining immigrants.”

“Forced labor is a particular violation of the statute that we’ve alleged,” plaintiffs’ attorney Andrew Free told the Washington Post. “Whether you’re calling it forced labor or slavery, the practical reality for the plaintiffs is much the same. You’re being compelled to work against your will under the threat of force or use of force.”

Since a form of slavery is still legal in the United States under the 13th Amendment, which prohibits enslavement and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” Colorado felons are paid much less than minimum wage. However, they have been convicted of crimes and, whether justly or not, stripped of certain fundamental rights of citizenship including gun ownership and voting. ICE detainees awaiting their days in court are held in civil detention. “There is a big difference between someone convicted of murder or rape and someone being held on a civil detainer for possible deportation,” DiSalvo told the Denver Post.

Claiming its work program is voluntary and that several full-time employees ensured compliance with ICE guidelines, GEO Group fired back against the lawsuit. “We have consistently, strongly refuted these allegations, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” company spokesman Pablo Paez wrote. “The volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the federal government.”

Boca Raton, Florida-based GEO Group is one of the world’s largest private prison companies, operating scores of prisons around the world in countries including Australia, England and South Africa. The company’s prisons have been plagued by serious human rights abuses, including a cover-up of deadly negligence, inadequate medical care leading to inmate deaths, inhumane living conditions, guards raping inmates and child sex abuse. GEO Group has also been accused of political corruption.

Despite these woes, GEO Group’s stock price has more than doubled since the election of President Donald Trump, who has promised to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and who reversed an Obama administration plan to dramatically reduce federal government reliance upon private prisons.

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