New lawsuit finds detained immigrants are forced to work for $1 a day

"Under these circumstances, no labor is voluntary – it is forced."

LUMPKIN, GA - MAY 4: Detainees at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. are escorted through a corridor. (Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
LUMPKIN, GA - MAY 4: Detainees at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. are escorted through a corridor. (Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Detainees held at a privately-operated immigration detention center in Georgia are forced to work at the facility for pitiful pay and are threatened with serious harm if they refuse to “volunteer” to work, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday against the private prison operator CoreCivic.

According to the lawsuit filed on behalf of current and formerly detained immigrants, the CoreCivic-operated Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin solicits “volunteers,” or immigrants detainees, to “mop, sweep, and wax floors; scrub toilets and showers; wash dishes; do laundry, clean medical facilities; and cook and prepare food and beverages” for the nearly 2,000-detainee population. Detainees are then paid between $1 and $4 per day and occasionally slightly more for double shifts. The lawsuit states that immigrant detainees reportedly do not have a choice to refuse because the facility has a “policy of threatening detained immigrants until they comply.”

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“CoreCivic then threatens detained immigrants who refuse to work with serious harm, including the deprivation of privacy and safety in open living quarters, referral for criminal prosecution, and, ultimately, the sensory and psychological deprivation of their humanity resulting from solitary confinement,” the lawsuit charged. “Under these circumstances, no labor is voluntary – it is forced.”

The class action plaintiffs include two current and one former kitchen workers who work as part of the “Voluntary Work Program” at Stewart where they are usually paid between $1 and $4 per day and can be paid as much as $8 per day when they work more than 12 hours a day.

The lawsuit — which was filed by Project South, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Law Office of R. Andrew Free, and Burns Charest LLP — was intended to end the operator’s “forced labor scheme and remedy the unjust enrichment resulting from CoreCivic’s illegal labor practices.”

“The prison corporation CoreCivic is exploiting the labor of detained immigrants to enrich itself–last year its revenues were nearly $1.8 billion. It must be stopped,” Azadeh N. Shahshahani, the Legal & Advocacy Director at the Atlanta-based advocacy group Project South, told ThinkProgress in an email Tuesday.

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The Stewart Detention Center has an Intergovernmental Service Agreement (IGSA) to detain immigrants on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Advocates have long argued that immigration violations are civil violations and many immigrants do not have criminal histories. But immigrant detainees are often held in “prison-like” conditions and under “punitive circumstances inappropriate for immigration detention’s  noncriminal purposes” at detention centers like Stewart across the country.

Despite the poor conditions, the immigration detention system has expanded at a rapid clip over the past two decades from 5,532 detention beds in 1994 to over 41,000 beds. At the same time, CoreCivic and other private prison operators like the GEO Group have become major beneficiaries of immigration enforcement, spending millions of dollars to lobby lawmakers and get more contracts to detain immigrants. Currently, more than 60 percent of all ICE immigration detention beds are operated by these private prison operators, the advocacy group Grassroots Leadership previously found, with nine out of the ten largest ICE detention centers owned by for-profit prison operators.

Private prison operators have continued to expand their reach into immigration detention at dizzying speed. Under the Trump administration, private prison operators have seen their revenue growth on an upward trajectory, with ICE looking to build detention facilities in Detroit, Chicago, St. Paul, and Salt Lake City areas. During an earnings call in February, GEO Group officials touted the development of a 1,000-bed ICE processing center in Houston under a “new 10-year contract” among other proposals accepted by the federal immigration agency. And earlier this year, a leaked memo revealed the Trump administration ordered transferring more inmates from government-run facilities to privately-owned facilities.

Yet even as private prison operators like CoreCivic and GEO Group expand, advocates have argued that facility conditions have not improved in kind. At least 14 detainees in custody have “passed away” after President Donald Trump took office in November 2016. Just at the Stewart Detention Center earlier this year, a Cuban immigrant slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness after he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He was the third immigrant to die at a Georgia-based immigration detention center in less than a year, Shahshahani told ThinkProgress in January.

Last week at another privately-operated facility in Texas, Gourgen Mirimanian, an Armenian immigrant who had been in the country since 1994, died at a Texas hospital after he entered ICE custody at the Prairieland Detention Center (PDC) in February. PDC staff found him unresponsive in his bunk before he was transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. According to the ICE agency, he was the fourth immigrant detainee to die in the 2018 fiscal year.