A class-action lawsuit brought against private prison operator Geo Group in 2017 concluded this week as a federal jury decided GEO Group must pay detainees Washington’s state minimum wage of $13.69 per hour for work they carry out at Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, Washington.
A dollar a day
This is a significant decision acknowledging wage violations committed by the company who had been paying detainees in immigration detention $1 a day since 2005. People held in detention at GEO Group’s Northwest ICE Processing Center provide the vast majority of labor and staff positions such as “laundry services, food preparation, maintenance and cleaning for the 1,575-bed facility.”
Instead of decent wages, detainees report being given food in exchange for their labor. At the same time, GEO Group could expect $57 million in annual revenue from a full-capacity center.
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson praised the decision of the court, and also requested that GEO Group be forced to reimburse both the exploited prisoners and the Tacoma citizens.
“This multi-billion dollar corporation illegally exploited the people it detains to line its own pockets,” Ferguson said on Facebook. “Today the jury returned a unanimous verdict: We won. GEO must now pay their workers the minimum wage.”
Ferguson additionally called the court’s decision “a major victory for workers’ rights and basic human dignity.
GEO Group faced a separate class-action lawsuit from immigrant detainees in Colorado who alleged being subjected to forced labor.
The importance of fair pay for detainees
The power imbalance that enables prisons and immigration detention centers to extract cheap labor from detainees is indicative of an inherently exploitative system that creates the conditions for forced and coerced labor in detention to thrive.
Fair pay, equivalent to what would be earned on the outside, is not only an indicator that labor is free, but the savings made are crucial for detainees’ recovery on release, as well as enabling them to afford basic necessities from the commissary.
Under the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, slavery remains legal as punishment for a crime and continues to impact incarcerated people in the prison industrial complex. We are demanding all states explicitly outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime and for U.S. Congress to pass the Abolition Amendment to strike the Punishment Clause from the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.