A private prison company forced immigrant detainees to work for as little as $1 per day if they wanted toilet paper, toothpaste, and safe lodging, according to a new lawsuit filed on Tuesday.
The class action suit, filed in federal court for the Middle District of Georgia, pits three plaintiffs––Wilhen Hill Barrientos, Margarito Velazquez Galicia, and Shoahib Ahmed––against CoreCivic, the nation’s largest private prison company. Barrientos and Velazquez Galicia are both currently detained in the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. Ahmed was previously detained there before giving up his asylum claim. The three allege that CoreCivic is violating a federal anti-human trafficking law with the work program that it oversees.
The detention center characterizes its work program as voluntary. But according to the lawsuit detainees are paid pennies per hour––generally $1 to $4 per day—for tasks such as mopping floors, scrubbing toilets, and serving meals. The lawsuit quotes a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general finding that staff at the Stewart facility didn’t give detainees soap, toilet paper, and toothpaste “promptly or at all when detainees ran out of them.”
“In one instance, Mr. Barrientos ran out of toilet paper and requested another roll from a CoreCivic officer,” the lawsuit says. “The CoreCivic officer told Mr. Barrientos to use his fingers to clean himself.”
According to the lawsuit, detainees are directed to use their wages to buy toilet paper and other hygiene products from the detention center commissary. And the only way immigrants can talk to their family outside the detention center is if they buy costly phone cards from the commissary, according to the lawsuit.
The suit says officers at the facility threatened to revoke Barrientos’ access to the commissary if he called in sick.
Immigrants who resist participating in the work program can face criminal charges or up to 30 days in solitary confinement, the suit says. They also are subjected to worse living quarters.
Those who participate in the work program sometimes get to stay in private two-person “pods” with functioning showers and private bathrooms—a notable upgrade from the conditions of the main dormitories.
“There is no privacy,” the suit says of those dormitories. “The lights in these dorms are on all day and night, requiring some detained immigrants to fold socks over their eyes in order to sleep. There is one bathroom in these dorms with three to four toilets, three to four urinals, and four sinks. This shared bathroom is often filthy, to the extent that the pod residents at times have to plug or cover their noses to avoid the overwhelming and festering stench. The showers in the open dormitories do not have temperature control and provide only extremely hot water. The open dormitories are also the site of frequent conflict and even violence. Indeed, the detained immigrants refer to open dormitories as ‘El Gallinero,’ or ‘the Chicken Coop,’ for both the conditions and overcrowded living quarters.”
CoreCivic on Wednesday said their work program complies with all federal rules.
"As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation," said spokesperson Jonathan Burns. "Regarding detainee work in our facilities, all work programs at our ICE detention facilities are completely voluntary and operated in full compliance with ICE standards, including federally mandated statutory reimbursement rates for Voluntary Work Program participants. We have worked in close partnership with ICE for more than 30 years and will continue to provide a safe and humane environment to those entrusted to our care."
Attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center are working with the litigants, as are attorneys from Project South, Burns Charest LLP, and the Law Office of R. Andrew Free.
This isn’t the only suit targeting private prison companies over work programs, and CoreCivic isn’t the only company facing this kind of litigation. Last year, a federal judge in Colorado granted class certification to a similar lawsuit, letting thousands of current and former detainees join on to a lawsuit against GEO Group, the country’s second biggest private prison company.
These lawsuits have drawn the attention of lawmakers. Earlier this year, 18 Republican members of Congress wrote a letter defending forced labor practices under the justification that work programs are good for morale.