Class Says Prison Firm Using Immigrant Detainees as Forced Labor

COLUMBUS, Ga. (CN) — A class action claims a private prison company tasked with housing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees in Georgia is using the detainees as forced labor.

In a federal complaint filed in Columbus on Tuesday, lead plaintiffs Wilhen Hill Barrientos, Margarito Velaquez Galicia and Shoaib Ahmed claim CoreCivic, the largest private prison contractor in the nation, forces immigrant detainees to work for as little as $1 a day in its Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.

Those who refuse to work are allegedly threatened with solitary confinement and the loss of access to food, clothing and personal hygiene products like toilet paper and soap.

The plaintiffs contend CoreCivic’s work program violates federal anti-trafficking laws.

Barrientos and Velazquez Galicia are both currently detained inside the Stewart Detention Center. Ahmed, a Bangladesh citizen, spent seven months at Stewart before giving up his right to fight for asylum due to the allegedly poor living conditions at Stewart.

According to the complaint, CoreCivic’s work program ensures that detainees provide the corporation with a labor force to maintain its Lumpkin, Georgia, facility. Detainees mop, sweep and wax floors, scrub toilets and showers, wash dishes, clean medical facilities, and prepare meals for all 2,000 prisoners.

“The Work Program allows CoreCivic to avoid recruiting from the local labor market, paying minimum wages, providing detained immigrants in the Work Program with any benefits, paying the costs of potential unionization, and paying federal and state payroll taxes, like Medicare, thereby reducing operational costs and increasing its own profits,” the complaint states.

Although CoreCivic characterizes the work program as “voluntary,” detainees are forced to purchase necessities like soap, toilet paper and toothpaste from the prison commissary, which is owned and operated by CoreCivic.

The lawsuit cites a report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security which found that Stewart detainees were not given hygiene products “promptly or at all.”

“Officers instruct detained immigrants to buy these necessities from the commissary when they run out,” the report says.

The complaint alleges that when Barrientos ran out of toilet paper and requested another roll from a CoreCivic officer, the officer told Barrientos to “use his fingers to clean himself.”

Officers allegedly threatened Barrientos with denial of access to the commissary if he called in sick to work. Barrientos was also placed in medical segregation for two months after he submitted a grievance against an officer who forced him to work while he was sick.

According to the complaint, CoreCivic deprives detained immigrants of contact with their loved ones. If detainees want to speak to their families outside the detention center, they must purchase costly phone cards from the commissary, the complaint says.

The lawsuit states that detainees who refuse to work or who organize a work stoppage are subjected to up to 30 days of solitary confinement or the initiation of criminal proceedings. They may also be moved to worse living quarters.

The complaint alleges that Ahmed was placed in solitary confinement for ten days when he threatened to stop working after CoreCivic failed to pay him for his labor.

Detained immigrants who submit to the work program are allowed to live in private two-person cells with private bathrooms, the suit says. Those who do not participate in the work program are moved to open dormitories detainees call “El Gallinero,” or “the Chicken Coop.”

The open dormitories house up to 66 people in 33 bunk beds.

“There is no privacy,” the complaint states. “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… The shared bathroom is often filthy, to the extent that the [dorm] residents at times gag from the overwhelming and festering stench.”

As a result of its treatment of detainees, CoreCivic “ensures an available labor pool of detained immigrants [who] will work for nearly free, thus allowing it to continue operating Stewart at an enormous profit,” the complaint says.

“CoreCivic is placing profits above people by forcing detained immigrants to perform manual labor for next to nothing, saving millions of dollars that would otherwise provide jobs and stimulate the local economy. CoreCivic is padding its pockets by violating anti-trafficking laws,” Meredith Stewart, senior attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a press release issued Tuesday.

In 2017, CoreCivic reported revenue of over $1 billion.

CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns declined to comment on the claims, citing policy with pending litigation.

“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,” Burns said. “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.”

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