Early last year, a senior executive in the nation’s second-largest private prison company went to Immigration and Customs Enforcement with a desperate plea: to pick up their multimillion-dollar legal bills.
Over the last five years, a series of people formerly held in GEO Group’s private immigration detention centers have sued the company over a work program. They allege that the company forces detainees to do manual labor for $1 a day (sometimes less) and has punished detainees who refuse with solitary confinement. Half a dozen suits are challenging the work programs and seeking damages for detainees from GEO and CoreCivic, another private prison company. They allege that the programs break a landmark law against human trafficking.
So GEO’s legal bills have piled up. And while the company has publicly downplayed the challenge the lawsuits pose, private correspondence between its top executives and senior officials at ICE indicates GEO views the litigation as cause for major concern. The communications—which Northwestern University Political Science Professor Jacqueline Stevens obtained by FOIA and shared with The Daily Beast—paint a picture of deep distress within the company regarding its legal bills.
GEO’s senior vice president of business development sent the first letter on Feb. 14, 2018. The exec’s name is redacted, but an archived page from the company’s website shows Dave Venturella held the post at the time (and still does). Before joining the private prison giant, Venturella was director of the arm of ICE responsible for arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants.
Venturella’s letter sounded urgent.
“GEO cannot bear the costs of this defense on its own,” he wrote, discussing the lawsuits.
He then detailed litigation in Colorado, California, and Washington against the company. The Colorado litigation alone was proving to be massively costly, he wrote.
“The legal discovery costs could total several millions of dollars and potential damages could be in the tens of millions,” he wrote.
At that point, just in the Colorado suit, GEO had racked up $1.6 million in legal bills. In Washington, their legal bills had topped $440,000.
Venturella then all but blamed ICE for getting them sued.
“To the extent that plaintiffs allege that disciplinary segregation [solitary confinement] is an unlawful threat for refusal to work, this sanction comes directly from ICE policies, which ICE should assist in defending,” he wrote.
“GEO’s contracts with ICE require that GEO administer the VWP [Voluntary Work Program] at the Aurora and Tacoma facilities, and set the reimbursable rate for that participation at $1 per detainee per day, an amount that cannot be increased without ICE’s authorization,” he added.
Venturella asked for an “equitable adjustment”—government contractor-speak for extra money to offset unexpected costs of fulfilling a contract. In other words, GEO Group hoped taxpayer dollars would cover the legal bills they racked up for allegedly violating human trafficking laws.
Several months later, GEO’s CEO, George Zoley, echoed Venturella’s plea. In a letter to ICE’s acting deputy director on May 30, he begged for money.
“We are deeply alarmed at the rapidly increasing costs in defending these lawsuits without reimbursement from ICE, or assistance in their defense by the Department of Justice,” he wrote.
Continued defense against the litigation would be “likely to cost $15-$20 million,” with tens of millions more if they lost and a court awarded damages to the plaintiffs.
“We urgently implore DOJ to take over the defense of these lawsuits and reimburse GEO for its costs,” he concluded.
But ICE rejected them—and it appears the Justice Department has, too. On July 9, 2018, ICE sent Zoley a short letter informing him that its contracting officers had decided against picking up the company’s legal bills.
Meanwhile, the office of the U.S. Solicitor General—the top appellate lawyer in the Justice Department—filed an amicus brief in federal court on April 1 of this year saying the dispute should be over the facts of the detainees’ treatment rather than whether the law against human trafficking applies to the companies. GEO had argued the human trafficking law didn’t apply to its treatments of detainees. But the S.G. didn’t bite, and DOJ refused to take a side in the litigation—a setback for the private prison firm.
“The private prisons act as though decades of labor law violations entitle them to exploit people in perpetuity,” said Stevens, the professor who obtained the letters through FOIA. “It’s about time they start following the rule of law and it’s ridiculous that they expect taxpayer reimbursements for unlawful profits.”
GEO’s letters to the feds took a markedly different tone from how they later described the litigation to shareholders. Their 2018 shareholder letter, dated Feb. 25, 2019, sounded sanguine about the topic and said defeat in court did not seem “probable nor reasonably estimable.”
“The Company does not expect the outcome of any pending claims or legal proceedings to have a material adverse effect on its financial condition, results of operations or cash flows,” it concluded.
Pablo Paez, a spokesperson for GEO Group, told The Daily Beast that the letters to ICE and the shareholder statement are consistent.
“Seeking reimbursement for legal expenses that are out of the ordinary is not inconsistent with the disclosure that the litigation in question is not expected to have a material adverse effect,” he said in a statement. “Contrary to the baseless allegations made in these lawsuits, this is a strictly voluntary program, and the implementation of the program is stipulated in standards set by the federal government.”
“In accordance with ICE’s National Detention Standards, detainees shall be able to volunteer for work assignments but otherwise shall not be required to work, except to do personal housekeeping. ICE is authorized to pay an allowance to detainees who participate in its voluntary work program, and ICE ensures detainees who chose to participate in the voluntary work program receive the pay owed to them,” an ICE spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
Plaintiffs fiercely contest that the program is voluntary. They allege that prison officials used fear of solitary confinement to coerce them into doing janitorial and maintenance work at the detention centers for just $1 a day–saving the prison company millions it would have had to spent if it paid them the minimum wage. In separate litigation, detainees have alleged that CoreCivic would only provide them toilet paper if they worked at the meager wages to earn money to pay for it.
But private prison companies have friends in high places. Last year, a group of Congressional Republicans sent a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions making a curious defense of the labor programs: forcing detainees to work for little or no money, they argued, was good for morale.