Update below: In a move that could have resounding consequences for corrections practices and the for-profit prison industry in particular, a Denver federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by nine federal immigrant detainees, who allege that a private prison contractor forced them to perform maintenance and cleaning jobs for little or no pay. The suit, which is seeking class-action status, accuses the company of violating federal laws prohibiting human trafficking and forced labor and seeks millions of dollars in damages.
Senior U.S. District Judge John L. Kane threw out some of the plaintiffs' claims but allowed the case against The GEO Group, which operates a detention facility in Aurora under contract with U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to move forward. The decision was hailed as "a tremendous victory for civil immigrant detainees nationwide" by Nina DiSalvo, the executive director of Towards Justice, a Denver-based nonprofit that partnered with several law firms to bring the action. "The judge's decision allows us to address the systemic problems with GEO's treatment of immigrant workers throughout the legal system."
One of the largest private prison companies in the world, GEO operates 66 correctional facilities in the United States, including ICE detention centers in Washington, Florida, and Colorado. The complaint alleges that Aurora detainees participate in a "voluntary work program" that includes laundry, kitchen and cleaning jobs, for which they are paid a dollar a day. Six detainees are also selected at random each day to clean the living pods without pay; refusal can result in being placed in solitary confinement.
The lawsuit argued that the arrangement violates Colorado's minimum wage law. Judge Kane disagreed, since the state's labor laws specifically carve out an exception for prisoners, who are not considered employees. But Kane found merit in the claim that GEO's approach to the pod-cleaning assignments — do it or get thrown in the hole — may be a violation of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibits involuntary servitude and coercive methods to demand work "by means of force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint." The judge also allowed a claim involving unjust enrichment to proceed.
Most correctional systems depend on cheap inmate labor to keep costs down. Kane's denial of GEO's motion to dismiss doesn't signal an end to that practice. It does, however, raise questions about the ability of a private contractor to demand that inmates perform basic maintenance or cleaning tasks under threat of further punishment. "Using forced detainee labor is an integral tool in maintaining GEO's profitability under its contracts with ICE," Nashville attorney Andrew Free, a co-counsel in the case, noted in prepared statement. "The court's decision today represents an important step forward in ending that morally bankrupt business model."
GEO has not responded to a request for comment on the ruling. We'll update this post if a response is forthcoming.
Update, 1:00 p.m.: The GEO Group corporate headquarters has provided a statement in response to our request for comment that reads, in part: "GEO’s facilities, including the Aurora, Colo., facility, provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary. 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. Our facilities adhere to these standards as well as strict contractual requirements and all standards set by ICE, and the agency employs several full-time, on-site contract monitors who have a physical presence at each of GEO’s facilities."