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).