TACOMA, Wash. (CN) --- A trial to determine whether a for-profit prison group should pay detainees in voluntary work programs minimum wage ended in a hung jury Thursday.
The state of Washington sued GEO Group in 2017 for violating the state’s minimum wage laws. The GEO-run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, pays detained workers $1 a day, but the state’s minimum wage was $12 an hour at the time of the lawsuit.
After nearly four years, the case finally went to trial last week in virtual proceedings due to the pandemic. Jurors deliberated three days before declaring they were deadlocked on the state’s request for enforcement of minimum wage and charges that the prison group owes back wages to detainees.
U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan of the Western District of Washington was clearly disappointed when announcing the mistrial Thursday afternoon.
“A lot of work down the tube,” Bryan told the courtroom.
Bryan had consolidated claims brought by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and a class of detainees for the trial.
In his opening instructions to jurors, Bryan said the cases were not about United States immigration policy and not about whether hiring private prison contractors is “a good or bad policy.”
The state said that work performed by detainees, including cooking, cleaning and operating laundry facilities deserve appropriate pay.
GEO argued throughout the trial that detainees are not employees and not entitled to minimum wage. Even if they were employees, GEO argued, the state could not require the company to pay minimum wage to detainees when Washington state prisoners are not paid minimum wage.
Bryan has not set a new trial date.
GEO has operated the detention center as a federal contractor since 2005.
Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill in April that would shut down for-profit detention centers by 2025.
“Washington has not supported use of private prisons, and this bill continues that policy by prohibiting private detention facilities from operating in the state,” Inslee said before signing the bill.
GEO immediately sued in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of the law. The case is in initial proceedings.
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