The two largest private prison corporations in the U.S., which pay people held for immigration law violations a dollar a day to work, are being sued for violating laws against forced labor, sub-minimum wages, and unjust enrichment. Nine detainees from a Colorado detention center run by Geo Group Inc.have been given the green light to represent a class of about 60,000 others who have been held at the same prison. Another class action lawsuit has been filed against the private jailer CoreCivic Inc., which operates a Georgia detention center and pays workers between $1 and $8 per day.
In 1978, Congress authorized the government to pay migrants who voluntarily work in its detention centers as little as $1 per day (when the minimum wage was $2.60). Since then, Geo, CoreCivic, and other private prisons have been hired and paid millions of dollars by the federal government to house the majority of individuals found entering or living in the United States without legal status. According to the complaints, Geo andCoreCivic save millions on labor costs by requiring detained immigrants to clean the facilities, cook, and wash laundry for only one dollar per day. The prisons assert that the detainees volunteer and are not forced to work. However, the lawsuits allege that the plaintiffs were faced with an impossible choice: work for cents per hour doing manual labor or face solitary confinement, medical segregation, and possible criminal prosecution. Additionally, without this work, detainees would lack access to necessities for basic hygiene (soap, shampoo, deodorant, etc.) or calling cards to reach family members, which must be purchased through commissaries in the prisons.
Detainees argue that the minimum wage laws apply to Geo andCoreCivic because immigration detention is civil in nature, not the result of a criminal conviction. A group of 18 Republican lawmakers disagree. Earlier this year, the group sent a letter to Immigration Customs and Enforcement and the Department of Justice asking the Trump administration to defend the private prison operators, arguing that the 1978 law requires the dollar-a-day rate. The federal government has not yet appeared in the lawsuits.