LET US VOLUNTEER YOU
The Voluntary Work Program dates back to 1950. Its $1 a day rate has yet to be adjusted for inflation (and would be equivalent to $10.40 a day now). In 2013, the 55 detention centers where the program operated held 76 percent of the country’s detained immigrants. The New York Times estimated that at least 60,000 detained immigrants who cycled through the nation’s detention centers over the course of a year participated in the program. That estimate includes only the people who are paid $1 a day—not those who work in exchange for additional food, phone calls or time outside their cell.
In some facilities, the $1-a-day wages have sparked mass hunger strikes and other protests. Detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., rose up en masse in defiance against the program in 2014, 2017 and 2018. Lawsuits over the program’s labor practices go as far back as 1990, when 16 detained immigrants charged the immigration agency (then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS) with violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. In that case, however, the courts ruled that detained immigrants are not considered employees and are not protected by labor law. In September 2017, Chao Chen, who had been detained in Washington state, filed suit against GEO Group charging the corporation with violating the state’s minimum wage law. In December 2017, a judge denied the corporation’s attempts to have the lawsuit dismissed. Chen’s lawyer is now seeking class action status.
What is new, however, is the legal strategy of charging corporations with labor trafficking. According to ICE’s own handbook, this work is not compulsory and provides “opportunities to work and earn money while confined.” But—according to every one of these five lawsuits—those who refuse to work, attempt to take a day off or complain about hazardous work conditions are severely punished.
Wilhen Hill Barrientos with his aunt. He is suing CoreCivic for forced labor. (Photo courtesy of the Barrientos family)
This new legal approach is important as the Trump administration increases—and fills—the number of detention beds. In 2012, Congress approved an act mandating that ICE maintain a daily minimum of 34,000 detention beds. In May 2017, Congress provided ICE with an additional $2.6 billion to increase the beds by another 5,300. In 2017, an average of 39,322 people were in immigrant detention each day, a huge jump from 5,532 in 1994. Private corporations control over 60 percent of immigrant detention beds.
INCREASE IN ICE ARRESTS UNDER TRUMP ADMINISTRATION
Not only have these corporations benefited from these policies and laws, but they’ve spent tens of millions of dollars to shape and push state and federal policies resulting in more detention beds. CoreCivic (then called the Corrections Corporation of America) worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council to shape Arizona’s draconian 2010 anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, according to a previous In These Times investigation. The groups routinely lobby around federal measures to increase ICE funding.
In 2016, GEO Group reported approximately $3.3 million in lobbying expenses and another $3 million in campaign contributions, and CoreCivic reported spending about $1.8 million on lobbying and $1 million on campaigns.
In March 2018, 18 Republican Congressmen sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, ICE and the Department of Labor calling on them to help GEO defend itself from the trafficking lawsuits. Six of the signatories had received a total of more than $20,000 in contributions from CoreCivic and GEO Group since 2015, according to The Daily Beast. The legislators concluded their letter, “Unless your agencies act to intervene in these lawsuits, immigration enforcement efforts will be thwarted and the end result will be millions of dollars of unnecessary loss to the federal government in terms of additional expenses for immigration detention.”
The two corporations have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Donald Trump. A GEO Group subsidiary gave $225,000 to a pro-Trump Super PAC, and each company donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration.
These investments appear to have paid off. Since the election, CoreCivic’s stock has gone up by 81 percent and GEO Group’s has risen by 63 percent. In April, GEO Group was awarded a 10-year contract to build and run a 1,000-bed detention center in Conroe, Texas. That center is expected to generate $44 million annually in profits. In 2017, 24 percent of the company’s $2.26 billion revenue came from ICE contracts.
CoreCivic has submitted several proposals for new immigrant detention centers in the Midwest, where ICE wants more facilities to keep up with arrests. In 2017, CoreCivic’s ICE contracts made up 25 percent of its $1.77 billion revenue (up from 13 percent in 2014).
INCREASE IN CORECIVIC’S STOCK VALUE SINCE NOVEMBER 2016
INCREASE IN GEO GROUP’S STOCK VALUE SINCE NOVEMBER 2016
Advocates believe that forced labor is part of what makes the business of detention so lucrative. Or, as Gonzalez’s suit charges, “CoreCivic uses forced labor rather than hiring workers and paying a proper minimum wage, overtime, and benefits.” Gonzalez’s lawyer, Tom Padgett, puts it this way: “If a company can get its toilets cleaned and have maintenance, lawn and landscaping, and not pay a person anything more than $1 a day, then that company is going to be wildly successful in its profit margin.”
Wilhen Hill Barrientos, a Guatemalan refugee, has been detained since 2015. (Photo courtesy of the Barrientos family)
AN “IMPOSSIBLE CHOICE”
“When I arrived at Stewart I was faced with the impossible choice—either work for a few cents an hour or live without basic things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food,” said Guatemalan asylum-seeker Wilhen Hill Barrientos in a recent press release announcing his lawsuit against CoreCivic. Barrientos has been confined at CoreCivic’s Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., since 2015. “In one instance, Mr. Barrientos ran out of toilet paper and requested another roll from a CoreCivic officer,” the suit alleges. “The CoreCivic officer told Mr. Barrientos to use his fingers to clean himself.”
Barrientos is one of three detainees at Stewart who filed suit against CoreCivic on April 17. The suit, filed by Project South, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Law Office of R. Andrew Free and Burns Charest LLP, charges that CoreCivic “maintains a deprivation scheme intended to force detained immigrants to work for nearly free.”
On any given day, the lawsuit alleges, detainees are required to “mop, sweep and wax floors; scrub toilets and showers; wash dishes; do laundry; clean medical facilities; and cook and prepare food and beverages.” They are paid between $1 and $4 each day. If they work 12 or more hours in one day, they are paid up to $8. That money is not directly paid to them; instead, it is deposited into an “inmate fund account” and can be used only to purchase items at the commissary. Sometimes, even these meager sums are allegedly withheld. If a person complains about lost wages—or any other working conditions—retaliation ensues.
The complaint says that those who refuse to work are also threatened with being moved from two-person cells into the more dangerous, violence-plagued 66-person dormitories, which detained people refer to as el gallinero, the chicken coop.
In one alleged example, an officer woke Barrientos late one night and ordered him to work the 2 a.m. kitchen shift instead of his assigned 10 a.m. shift. When Barrientos refused, the officer told him he would be moved to another unit. Terrified that he would be placed in el gallinero, Barrientos relented and worked the earlier shift.
As in other detention centers, these jobs help keep the detention center functioning. CoreCivic does not hire outside people to work in Stewart’s kitchen; instead, it employs detainees, including Barrientos and his co-plaintiffs, to cook for its 1,700-plus detainees. The facility employs a total of approximately 300 non-detainee workers; only 96 are from the surrounding Stewart County, where almost 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
The lean operation generates big returns: In 2016, CoreCivic’s revenue was approximately $38 million from Stewart alone. In 2017, one-quarter of its $444.1 million revenue came from ICE detention.
Immigrant detention facilities are not the only public institutions substituting underpaid (or unpaid) labor from incarcerated people for paid outside labor. In prisons across the country—both private and government-run—incarcerated people keep the prisons functioning. The jobs are remarkably similar in prisons and detention centers. A key difference is that, for people in state and federal prisons, the 13th Amendment permits slavery as punishment for a crime. Because immigrant detention is civil, not criminal, confinement—a fact noted in Barrientos and Gonzalez’s lawsuits—the slavery exception should not apply.
CAN CORPORATIONS BE TRAFFICKERS?
Passed in 2000, the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act ostensibly protects people from being forced into labor. Though sex trafficking tends to garner the most media and legislative attention, the act expressly prohibits coercing any labor under threats of serious harm, physical restraint or the abuse of the legal process.