GEO Group, a private prison company responsible for the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colorado, is being accused of forcing immigrants to work without any remuneration.
A lawsuit brought against the company in 2014 on behalf of nine detainees describes in detail how immigrants arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and placed under the care of GEO worked without pay. On Feb. 27, a federal judge allowed the suit to proceed as a class action, giving the public an opportunity to learn more about how the company exploited detainees in order to cut the costs of running the facility.
Carlos Eliezer Ortiz Muñoz, one of the detainees accusing GEO of forced labor, arrived at the Aurora facility in 2014.
Upon arrival, he was assigned to a housing unit and given a clothing package. For months, he waited to see if ICE would deport him or if he would win the battle to remain in the country.
Before long, Muñoz was put to work.
Guards assigned six detainees each day to clean private and common areas. Their job was to sweep and mop floors, scrub down toilets and showers, and make sure eating tables were spotless.
At times, Muñoz said in a court statement, guards would threaten immigrants by asking: “Quieres ir al hoyo?,” or “Do you want to go to the hole” in Spanish. This meant that immigrants could end up in solitary confinement if they protested or refused to work.
The suit alleges that GEO Group has forced over 50,000 immigrants to work without pay or for $1 a day since 2014.
According to Andrew Free, one of the detainees' legal team's immigration attorneys, this suit could slow down the government's use of such detentions for ICE-related confinement.
"If we're right, and these practices are illegal, it has tremendous implications on the ability of the government to use detention in the immigration enforcement architecture," he said. "It would prompt a serious rethinking of whom to detain, and how much it's going to cost."
GEO receives more taxpayer money and incarcerates more immigrants than any other detention center operator.
According to the firm's own local detainee handbook, people like Muñoz were required to work as janitors without pay, and if they didn't, they were punished with solitary confinement.
Prisoners were also given the "choice" of applying for a job in the facility's voluntary work programs, which paid them exactly $1 a day.
Defending the firm's practices, Pablo Paez, GEO's spokesperson, wrote in a statement that the company's volunteer work program policies meet federal standards.
“We have consistently, strongly refuted the allegations made in this lawsuit, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” he wrote. “The volunteer work program at all immigration facilities as well as the minimum wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the Federal government under mandated performance-based national detention standards."
According to ICE's own guidelines for immigration detention centers, voluntary work programs serve as a way to give detainees “opportunities to work and earn money while confined.” Despite the standards set by the federal agency, ACLU's director of the National Prison Project, David Fathi, said these programs cannot be called voluntary, as people are being “held in captivity, against their will.”
While under many circumstances, work can be positive for those who are incarcerated, he continued, “the problem isn't the existence of the work program. The problem is this inherently coercive relationship that makes the workers uniquely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse."
In a statement to court, Lourdes Argueta said she volunteered, working as a janitor in the medical facility first and in GEO's booking area later, where she would create new detainee files and put clothing packages together for new detainees.
She and others would “clean toilets, sweep and mop floors, pull carpets and clean floors, clean windows, remove trash, clean patients' rooms (including cleaning up blood, feces and urine), and perform other cleaning tasks.”
But whenever there weren't enough “voluntary workers,” GEO's assistant business manager at Aurora testified, the company was forced to bring in additional officers and pay them hourly wages. So if the firm didn't have enough detainees signing up for the program, the company would have to shell out thousands more to get the same work done, as the Colorado facility was required to pay $10.90 an hour for food service workers, for instance. Simply forcing immigrants to get the job done surely paid off in the end.
“If GEO was absorbing all of the labor costs, its profit would be less," explained Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, one of the firms working on behalf of detainees in this case.
Alleging GEO “unjustly enriched” itself by misleading detainees, the suit could end up disrupting how private prison complexes do business with agencies like ICE — and this could be a step into the right direction.