A federal court ruling allows hundreds of thousands of former detainees to sue the GEO Group.
By Robin Urevich
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees who allege they were required to work for $1 a day and, in many cases, for no pay at all, are one step closer to their day in court. The undocumented immigrants were all incarcerated at the Adelanto Detention Facility and the other detention centers operated by the GEO Group. GEO is the nation’s largest private prison company and currently holds more than 10,000 ICE detainees.
On November 26, U.S. District Court Judge Jesus G. Bernal announced his decision to allow hundreds of thousands of former detainees to join together to pursue back pay and damages when he granted class action status in Raul Novoa v. the GEO Group, dealing a defeat to the private prison firm.
The plaintiffs allege that a so-called voluntary work program in which detainees are paid $1 a day to do janitorial work, prepare meals and do laundry isn’t voluntary at all. Instead, they argue GEO requires detainees to work under the threat of solitary confinement or even criminal prosecution, saving the company millions of dollars in wages it would otherwise have to pay non-detainee workers. They further contend that GEO has a corporate policy of drafting detainees to do additional janitorial work for free, and that the company requires would-be dollar-a-day workers to also work without compensation until they are officially hired into the paid positions.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and the author of Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, believes that the lawsuits could have implications beyond immigration detention centers.
“If the detainees prevail in their lawsuits,” she says, “this body of litigation may also shape future litigation of convicted individuals in jails and prisons who argue that they are not being paid fair wages for their work behind bars.”
Three similar cases are pending against the GEO Group – two in Washington state and one in Colorado — where class-action status has already been granted. Five lawsuits challenging detainee labor practices at facilities operated by CoreCivic, a slightly smaller private prison firm, are also making their way through the courts.