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Jury: Immigrant detainees working at for-profit prison owed minimum wage

“This multibillion-dollar corporation illegally exploited the people it detains to line its own pockets,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said following the verdict.

SEATTLE (CN) — A federal jury in Washington state found immigrant detainees in a voluntary work program at a for-profit ICE processing facility are employees under state law and deserve minimum wage.

The verdict caps a four-year legal battle over whether the Florida-based GEO Group, one of the largest private prison providers in the country and operator of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma since 2005, unjustly profited off of immigrant detainees by paying them $1 a day for cleaning and cooking services that the private prison company is required to perform under its contract with ICE.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued GEO in 2017 along with a class of detainees seeking back pay. The first trial in the case, which took place via Zoom video conference due to the pandemic, ended in a hung jury this past summer after three days of futile deliberations.

The second trial, which was held in person, lasted 11 days, closed Tuesday with attorneys presenting their closing arguments. The jury reached a verdict just before 1 p.m. Wednesday after about four hours of deliberation, according to federal court records.

Attorneys will present their arguments regarding damages GEO must pay, including back wages to detainees, beginning Thursday.

“This multibillion-dollar corporation illegally exploited the people it detains to line its own pockets,” Ferguson said in a statement posted on Twitter. “Today’s victory sends a clear message: Washington will not tolerate corporations that get rich violating the rights of the people.”

A lawyer representing the detainees, Jamal Whitehead, accused GEO’s defense attorneys of purposely trying to confuse jurors in what the state and the class of detainees view as a straightforward case.

“GEO has thrown the kitchen sink at you,” Whitehead told the jury Tuesday.

Washington Assistant Attorney General Marsha Chien urged jurors not to overthink whether GEO permitted the detainees to work because the parties already agreed the state minimum wage law applied to their labor.

Lawyers for GEO attempted to argue the company could not employ the detainees because it was merely operating an ICE-mandated program. The state countered GEO had crafted job descriptions, assigned jobs and evaluated whether the jobs were completed.

“If it looks like work, sounds like work and acts like work, it’s work,” Chien said.

Analyses from GEO found that it would take 85 full-time employees to substitute for the daily work of upward of 400 detainees, according to the state. A number of former detainees testified about grueling work they performed to earn extra cash for supplemental food from a jail commissary.

GEO could not immediately be reached for comment about the verdict.

Similar cases have been filed against GEO and other for-profit prison companies in other states, including New Mexico, Colorado and California.

This month, GEO argued for the dismissal of the Washington state case based on the Ninth Circuit's decision to block California’s ban on private immigration jails, which held that states are barred from regulating federal government policy.

GEO has also sued Washington state over a similar ban on for-profit jails that was signed into law this spring. In 2015, ICE extended its contract with GEO in the Evergreen State through 2025.

That case has been stayed until the Ninth Circuit issues a mandate regarding the California ruling.

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