Are Private Prisons Using Forced Labor?

Source: Josh Eidelson, Bloomberg Business Week, November 8, 2017 

On Nov. 15 the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver will hear arguments in a case that could change the future of the $5 billion private prison industry. Judges will decide whether a district court was correct in February when it certified a class action on behalf of around 60,000 current and former detainees who are suing Geo Group Inc., one of the largest U.S. private prison companies, for allegedly violating federal anti-trafficking laws by coercing them to work for free under threat of solitary confinement. The case was first filed in 2014 by a group of immigrants who had been detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility run by Geo in Aurora, Colo. Their key claim rests on the assertion that Geo violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a law designed to stop human trafficking—a scourge many associate with sexual exploitation by gangs, not with government contractors’ treatment of detained immigrants. Their lawsuit argues that Geo violated the law’s prohibition on using threats to obtain labor. …

Related:

How a Private Prison Company Used Detained Immigrants for Free Labor
Source: Madison Pauly, Mother Jones, April 3, 2017

… The GEO Group, the private prison company that operates Aurora, allegedly forced more than 50,000 immigrants like Ortiz to work without pay or for $1 a day since 2004, according to a lawsuit that nine detainees brought against the company in 2014. On February 27, a federal judge ruled that their case could proceed as a class action, breathing new life into a suit that exposes the extent to which the for-profit company relied on cheap or unpaid detainee labor to minimize costs at the Aurora facility. … GEO incarcerates more immigrants (and receives more public money to do so) than any other detention center operator, according to an analysis by the anti-detention group CIVIC. And its business detaining immigrants for ICE is only expected to grow “with this increased and expanded approach to border security,” CEO George Zoley said in a February earnings call. …

Thousands of ICE detainees claim they were forced into labor, a violation of anti-slavery laws
Source: Kristine Phillips, Washington Post, March 5, 2017

Tens of thousands of immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were forced to work for $1 day, or for nothing at all — a violation of federal anti-slavery laws — a lawsuit claims.  The lawsuit, filed in 2014 against one of the largest private prison companies in the country, reached class-action status this week after a federal judge’s ruling. That means the case could involve as many as 60,000 immigrants who have been detained.  It’s the first time a class-action lawsuit accusing a private U.S. prison company of forced labor has been allowed to move forward. … At the heart of the dispute is the Denver Contract Detention Facility, a 1,500-bed center in Aurora, Colo., owned and operated by GEO Group under a contract with ICE. The Florida-based corporation runs facilities to house immigrants who are awaiting their turn in court. … The lawsuit, filed against GEO Group on behalf of nine immigrants, initially sought more than $5 million in damages. Attorneys expect the damages to grow substantially given the case’s new class-action status. … The original nine plaintiffs claim that detainees at the ICE facility are forced to work without pay — and that those who refuse to do so are threatened with solitary confinement. Specifically, the lawsuit claims, six detainees are selected at random every day and are forced to clean the facility’s housing units. The lawsuit claims that the practice violates the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibits modern-day slavery. … GEO Group also is accused of violating Colorado’s minimum wage laws by paying detainees $1 day instead of the state’s minimum wage of about $9 an hour. The company “unjustly enriched” itself through the cheap labor of detainees, the lawsuit says.

… The class-action ruling by Kane, a senior judge in the U.S. District Court in Colorado, came at a critical time, DiSalvo said, noting President Trump’s pledge to deport 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants. Advocates say private prison companies that have government contracts stand to benefit significantly from the president’s hard-line policy of detaining and deporting a massive number of immigrants. … Notably, the stocks of the two biggest private prison operators, Geo Group and CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America), have surged since Trump’s election. The companies donated a total of $500,000 to Trump’s inaugural festivities, USA Today reported. Since Trump took office, his administration has reversed the Obama administration’s policy to end the country’s reliance on private prisons. … Under ICE’s Voluntary Work Program, detainees sign up to work and are paid $1 a day. … Jacqueline Stevens, who runs Northwestern University’s Deportation Research Clinic, said the program does not meet the criteria for what qualifies as volunteer work under labor laws. … Prison labor, Stevens added, has two purposes: to punish prisoners after they’ve been convicted of a crime and to rehabilitate them. Those don’t apply to immigrant detainees, she said. … In 2015, Kane, the federal judge, partially denied the motion to dismiss. Although he agreed with GEO Group that Colorado’s minimum wage law is inapplicable, he ruled that the other claims can stand. … Kane granted class-action status a few days after the Justice Department directed the Bureau of Prisons to, again, use private prisons, a significant shift from the Obama-era policy of significantly reducing — and ultimately ending — their use. …