Judge OKs forced labor lawsuit against detention center contractor

A guard at the Northwest Detention Center, a private facility owned and operated by the GEO Group, on contract from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
A guard at the Northwest Detention Center, a private facility owned and operated by the GEO Group, on contract from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

A federal judge allowed a Colorado class-action lawsuit against private prison contractor The GEO Group, which runs the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, to move forward this week. The suit argues that GEO violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act by allegedly forcing immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement  (ICE) to work without compensation under threat of solitary confinement at its Aurora facility.

The Florida-based company is the contractor hired by ICE to run the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, as well as several other immigration detention centers throughout the country.

Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, which is co-counsel on the case along with several other organizations, says it is the group’s understanding that GEO’s detainee work policies are nationwide throughout its U.S. facilities.

“The Judge’s decision allows us to address the systemic problems with GEO’s treatment of immigrant workers through the legal system,” DiSalvo said in a prepared statement.

GEO, in a prepared statement sent to The Seattle Globalist, says its practices are humane and adhere to ICE standards.

Towards Justice and other groups filed the class-action lawsuit in Colorado on behalf of current and former detainees, who claim that the company would require six randomly selected detainees to clean living spaces at the Aurora facility without compensation, or else be put in isolation. U.S. District Judge John L. Kane said in his decision that the plaintiffs’ allegation is a possible violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which allows someone to sue anyone who “knowingly provides or obtains the labor or services of a person by …means of force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint.”

However, Kane also threw out a portion of the lawsuit alleging that a $1 an day payment to detainees in a voluntary work program did not violate Colorado’s minimum wage law, because the law does not cover prisoners.

According to court papers, GEO’s lawyers argued that detainees should not be considered “employees,” and that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act does not apply to immigration detainees.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs praised Kane’s decision this week, in a prepared statement.

“Even the largest corporations in the country must respect the rights and dignity of workers, even for those who are detained. GEO can no longer continue to profit off detained immigrant labor without facing the consequences,” stated co-counsel Hans Meyer, who also represented the immigration cases of Alejandro Menocal and Grisel Xahuentitla Flores, two of the nine named plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In the statement sent to The Seattle Globalist, the GEO Group refuted the allegations made in the lawsuit:

“GEO’s facilities, including the Aurora, Colo. facility, provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary. The volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the Federal government. Our facilities adhere to these standards as well as strict contractual requirements and all standards set by ICE, and the agency employs several full-time, on-site contract monitors who have a physical presence at each of GEO’s facilities.”

If the lawsuit is successful, the plaintiffs seek millions of dollars in damages for forced labor and unjust enrichment for the detainees who were held in GEO Group’s Aurora facility.