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07/10/2015 12:44 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2015

Private Prison Company Forced Immigrants To Work For Free, Lawsuit Says

A guard escorts an immigrant detainee from his 'segregation cell' back into the general population at the Adelanto Detention
Credit: John Moore/Getty Images
A guard escorts an immigrant detainee from his 'segregation cell' back into the general population at the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California.

When Alejandro Menocal got locked up in an immigrant detention center in Aurora, Colorado, last year, he volunteered to work in the recreation yard. A Mexican-born migrant who has lived in the United States since 1973, Menocal said he enjoyed the exercise. He later took a job at the detention center serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to some 60 detainees and helping to clean the dining room, he says.

The GEO Group, the private prison contractor that runs the detention center as a for-profit enterprise, paid Menocal $1 per day for his work -- a common practice across the United States, where many detainees toil for days in order to earn enough money to buy a phone card.

But Menocal's job at the cafeteria wasn’t the only job he was expected to do. Each day, guards selected six detainees to clean each “pod” -- a cell containing roughly 60 migrants -- for no pay at all. One day, the six people chosen for pod cleaning duty refused to work. The guards swapped their orange jumpsuits for red ones, Menocal says, and punished them with solitary confinement, a chilling example for others who might follow their lead.

“They put them in isolation -- we call it ‘the hole,’” Menocal told The Huffington Post. “You don’t get to see anybody all day, not even the guards who bring you food.”

Now Menocal is a plaintiff in a lawsuit accusing the country's second-largest private prison contractor of unjustly enriching itself with the labor of immigrant detainees and forcing them to do custodial work for free under the threat of solitary confinement. On Monday, U.S. District Judge John Kane denied the GEO Group’s motion to dismiss the suit.

The lawsuit, filed last year on behalf of current and former immigrant detainees at the Aurora Detention Center, said that GEO violated Colorado’s minimum wage law, as well as the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act, a federal law that bars forced labor. A third claim under common law accused GEO of illegally enriching itself at the detainees' expense.

While Kane denied GEO’s motion to dismiss the suit, he also said that Colorado’s minimum wage law wasn’t intended to apply to immigrant detainees. But the lawsuit will move forward based on the other two claims.

A favorable decision for the former inmates could have broad implications for the largely privatized immigrant detention system, in which private companies routinely pay well below the minimum wage for custodial duties and other work. 

“GEO is making millions and millions of dollars a year, in part because they’re not paying the people who work at the facilities,” Nina DiSalvo, the executive director of Towards Justice, a nonprofit organization working with the attorneys handling the lawsuit, told the HuffPost. “It’s a pretty big deal that the regular practices that they’ve codified in policy handbooks would be forced labor.”

GEO denied any wrongdoing in an email to HuffPost. “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 statement says. “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.”

GEO has faced a series of allegations of misconduct at another immigrant detention center it runs in Karnes City, Texas, which houses immigrant mothers and their children. A group of women -- many of whom had passed the first stages of establishing an asylum claim -- launched a hunger strike before the Easter holiday to protest their continued detention. Some of the women said that guards at the GEO-run facility threatened to separate the mothers from their children if they continued to protest.

The private prison contractor denied allegations of wrongdoing in that instance as well.

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