ATLANTA (CN) – Attorneys for a billion-dollar private prison company that houses immigrant detainees in Georgia asked an 11th Circuit panel Thursday to rule that a federal law prohibiting forced labor does not apply to the detainees.
Three current and former detainees at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, sued CoreCivic, the government contractor that runs the facility, alleging the Tennessee-based company violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act by threatening inmates with violence, solitary confinement and deprivation of basic necessities to force them to work.
A federal judge denied CoreCivic’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, prompting its appeal to the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit.
Arguing on behalf of private prison firm Thursday, attorney Nicholas Acedo of Struck Love Bojanowski & Acedo told the three-judge panel that immigrant detainee labor is authorized under the Act and asked the panel to find that the law does not apply in this case.
Lead plaintiffs Wilhen Barrientos, Margarito Velazquez-Galicia, and Shoaib Ahmed, former and current kitchen workers in CoreCivic’s voluntary work program, claimed in their complaint that immigrant detainees are forced to work for as little as $1 a day to be able to afford basic necessities like toilet paper and soap from the commissary.
The complaint alleges that CoreCivic assigns participants in its voluntary work program various jobs including meal preparation, washing laundry, cleaning floors and scrubbing bathrooms. The company pays detainees between $1 and $4 per day and deposits the wages into their inmate fund accounts.
Inmates who participate in the voluntary work program are allowed to live in private two-person cells with access to a bathroom and common area.
When inmates refuse to work, CoreCivic allegedly threatens to transfer them back to overcrowded open dormitories, revoke their access to the commissary, transfer them to solitary confinement or initiate criminal proceedings against them.
The detainees claim the company maintains the poor living conditions as part of a “deprivation scheme” to continue its access to cheap labor, thereby reducing its operational costs and increasing profits.
Participation in the voluntary work program, the plaintiffs claim, is not actually voluntary in any meaningful sense.
Chief U.S. District Judge Clay Land found that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act applies to forced labor in the context of detainee work programs, rejecting CoreCivic’s argument that the law does not apply to people who are held lawfully as detainees by the federal government.
Attorneys for the government submitted an amicus brief to the 11th Circuit in April, arguing that the law does apply to federal contractors operating immigration detention facilities and the government has “strong interests” in ensuring that authorized voluntary work programs are properly administered.
Under questioning Thursday from Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Hull, a Bill Clinton appointee, an attorney arguing on behalf of the plaintiffs told the panel that the detainees don’t object to the existence of the voluntary work program but believe that CoreCivic does not operate the program in accordance with detention standards laid out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“You cannot force people in civil immigration custody to do work,” attorney R. Andrew Free said, acknowledging that personal housekeeping tasks requiring detainees to make their own beds and keep the floors in their cells free of clutter do not qualify as forced labor.
“These detainees claim they fear for their lives,” Free told the panel before urging the judges to dismiss CoreCivic’s appeal of Land’s order.
Justice Department attorney Brad Hinshelwood told the panel that the federal government “wants to make clear that the statute does cover facilities of this type.”
Hull was joined on the panel by Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus, a Bill Clinton appointee, and Senior U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein, a Jimmy Carter appointee sitting by designation from the Western District of Washington.
The panel did not indicate when it would reach a decision in the case.