Class Action Suit Alleging Private Prison Group Forced ICE Detainees into Labor is Allowed to Move Forward

Harrison Paige

The U.S. District Court of Colorado recently certified a class action lawsuit filed against GEO Group, Inc. (“GEO”), a billion-dollar private prison conglomerate. Plaintiffs claim that they were forced to clean the Aurora Detention Facility (the “Facility”) while detained and awaiting immigration hearings, in violation of federal slave labor laws, and that GEO was unjustly enriched by Plaintiffs’ work. This is the first time that a court has certified a class action claiming that a private U.S. prison violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”). The TVPA’s prohibitions against forced labor state that obtaining labor or services via means or threats of force, restraint, harm, abuse, threatened abuse of law, or deceptive schemes is illegal. The approval of class action status means that up to 60,000 current and former inmates of the Facility “are now part of the lawsuit without having to actively join as plaintiffs.

First, Plaintiffs claim that GEO violated the TVPA “by requiring detainees to clean the private and common areas of the Facility without any compensation and under the threat of solitary confinement and other punishments.” Allegedly, GEO chooses a handful of inmates each day and forces them to work as janitorial staff for the 1,500-bed Facility, violating Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (“ICE”) own sanitation policy, which only mandates that “all detainees perform personal housekeeping,” like making their own beds, organizing their bunk area, and keeping the floor free of clutter. The sanitation policy does not include any mandate regarding detainees working as janitorial staff for the entire Facility. Thus, Plaintiffs claim that Facility staff’s threats of solitary confinement and additional criminal charges to solicit detainee labor violates the forced labor provision of the TVPA (18 U.S.C. §§ 1589, 1595).

Second, Plaintiffs claim that GEO was unjustly enriched by the ICE’s Volunteer Work Program (“VWP”), which allows detainees to “perform tasks such as maintaining the on-site medical facility, doing laundry, preparing meals, and cleaning the Facility” for $1 a day. ICE stresses that the program is voluntary and that detainees only have to abide by the personal housekeeping regulations; however, Plaintiffs allege that GEO “misled VWP participants” into believing they could not earn more than $1 a day under ICE standards and that they were sometimes paid nothing at all for their work. Additionally, Plaintiffs point to the fact that, as detainees, they had no way of seeking separate competitive employment, and that GEO employed only one outside janitor for the Facility. Plaintiffs assert that, together, this is evidence that GEO was using detainees to run almost the entirety of its janitorial program, thereby deriving “significant economic benefit from its VWP.”

This class action also attempted to call into question the legality of GEO’s paying ICE detainees minimal or nonexistent wages and originally contained allegations of minimum wage violations. Critics pointed out that inmates in American prisons often work for miniscule wages, normally under the pretense that such labor trains them for vocational work after they are released. The question of the rights of ICE detainees is different, however, because they have not been convicted of a crime; they are awaiting a court’s inquiry into their immigration status and are not always deported after the proceedings. Regardless, in a blow to the Plaintiffs’ claims, Judge Kane ruled that Colorado’s minimum wage statutes do not apply to ICE detainees.

While GEO claims that its facilities are compliant with standards and provide humane environments for detainees, the testimony from up to 60,000 inmates could call GEO’s self-characterization into question. Judge Kane’s decision is especially important given that many of the alleged victims in this case “lack English proficiency… have limited financial resources, and reside in countries around the world,” making their chances at successfully bringing individual suits against GEO improbable at best.

If you believe you are working under unfair conditions, including being subjected to salary or wage violations, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.