Private prison company halts detainee work program after huge judgment


Florida-based GEO Group (GEO) has suspended the Voluntary Work Program at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center in Tacoma rather than pay detainees minimum wage.

GEO, which is contracted by the federal government to run the Tacoma facility, had been paying detainees $1 a day for tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and cutting hair.

On October 27, a federal jury ruled detainee laborers were entitled to be paid Washington state’s minimum wage of $13.69 an hour. On October 29, GEO received permission from ICE to suspend the program, according to court documents. Last week, GEO was ordered to pay more than $23 million in back pay and unjust profits to current and former detainees.

It was part of a class action lawsuit consolidated with a separate lawsuit brought by Washington state alleging the private-prison company was violating state labor law and enriching itself unjustly.

GEO had argued detainees at the Tacoma ICE facility were not employees under state law, and that federal law permitted the company to pay detainees less than minimum wage for the work they performed.

The verdict in U.S. District Court in Tacoma came in a second trial over the issue. The first trial ended in June with a deadlocked jury.

In response to a request for comment about the suspension of the Voluntary Work Program while GEO appeals the decision, an ICE public affairs official in Seattle said the request was being forwarded to a national media contact.

GEO responded by referencing a press release the company put out following the verdict and judgements.

“GEO strongly disagrees with the verdict and judgments in the retrial of the lawsuits,” the company said in the press release. “GEO intends to raise several issues on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, including the applicability of the state of Washington’s Minimum Wage Act to detainees who participate in the federally-mandated Voluntary Work Program at the Northwest ICE Processing Center (the ‘Center’), and the affirmative defenses that GEO believes were wrongly dismissed in these cases. GEO looks forward to having those and other related issues heard on appeal based on GEO’s belief that the cases were wrongly decided. GEO intends to take all necessary steps to vigorously defend itself.”

In the same press release, the company noted a March ruling against detainees at a New Mexico facility owned by another private immigration detention contractor, Nashville, Tennessee-based CoreCivic.

“In a unanimous decision in that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a U.S. District Court ruling which dismissed the case and found that detainees who volunteer to participate in the Voluntary Work Program in immigration processing centers are not employees and are not owed wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act and New Mexico’s minimum wage law,” the statement said.

GEO’s decision to halt the program seems to be having a negative impact on hygiene within the Tacoma facility, at least according to some detainees.

“It got really gross – nobody cleaned anything,” Ivan Sanchez, a detainee from Mexico, said in a phone interview with the Associated Press (AP). “We pick up after ourselves, but nobody sweeps or mops. The guards were saying it wasn’t their job to clean the toilets… It caused a lot of animosity between the detainees and the officers because of that.”

That same AP report noted Brazilian Jose Soares volunteered and was allowed to clean the floors and bathrooms in his unit because they were “so grimy.”

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