The state of Washington sued a private prison company on Wednesday for allegedly exploiting immigrant detainees by paying them $1 per day for their labor ― or sometimes compensating them only with candy or chips instead.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) said the GEO Group, Inc. has profited off of violating state minimum wage laws for more than a decade at the Northwest Detention Center, where it detains as many as 1,575 immigrants at a time on behalf of the federal government. Those detainees do “virtually all” of the non-security work at the Tacoma, Washington, facility, and are barely compensated for it, he said. It is the only immigrant detention center in the state.
“Let’s be honest about what’s going on: GEO has a captive population of vulnerable individuals who cannot easily advocate for themselves,” Ferguson said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit. “This corporation is exploiting those workers for their own profits.”
The payment scheme is common at detention centers around the country, and immigrants and their allies have sued on similar grounds before. But this time, they have a state attorney general ― and the weight and resources that provides ― on their side. If Washington state prevails, it could have massive repercussions for GEO by forcing them to pay an $11 per hour minimum wage and give up past profits ― and send a message to the for-profit immigrant detention business as a whole, which is likely to grow under President Donald Trump.
Immigrant detention differs from jails or prisons in that it relates to civil, not criminal, offenses and is not meant to be punitive. Jails and prisons routinely pay below minimum wage, and the practice is permitted even in states with far-reaching minimum wage laws, like Washington state. But Ferguson said there are no such exemptions in the state minimum wage law for facilities like the Northwest Detention Center, which is privately-run, for-profit and holds civil detainees.
The GEO Group denied any wrongdoing and said they will fight the lawsuit. Spokesman Pablo Paez said the Tacoma facility and all other Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers operated by GEO meet requirements “set exclusively by the Federal government under mandated performance-based national detention standards,” including for the work program they claim is voluntary.
“GEO strongly refutes the baseless and meritless allegations made in this lawsuit, and we intend to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” Paez said in a statement.
ICE did not respond to a request for comment.
The Washington state attorney general’s office investigation began earlier this year based on concerns from advocates, bolstered by a hunger strike by hundreds of detainees in April over conditions at the facility.
When corporations are able to exploit a particular set of workers, that actually has impacts across the board for all workers across our communities. Northwest Immigrant Rights Project executive director Jorge Barón
Detainees told the attorney general’s office that guards asked them to “volunteer” for work but would assign it to detainees if no one stepped forward, and some immigrants felt unable to say no, Ferguson said. Some said they had worked overnight painting walls or cleaning floors and were paid only in chips and candy. Detainees said guards also asked them to work beyond the end of a shift without any compensation and that GEO did not provide them appropriate gear, Ferguson said.
The attorney general’s office said they were told the $1 per day was typically put in individuals’ commissary account, meaning they could use it to buy items back from GEO.
The lawsuit demands both that GEO pay minimum wage at its Tacoma facility and that the company puts past profits made through underpaying workers ― an amount Ferguson said he expects to be in the millions ― into a trust or fund. The attorney general’s office will likely ask that the fund go toward supporting detainees and job-seekers near the facility who lost opportunities because GEO was using underpaid labor instead, Ferguson said. In the future, he said GEO should either pay detainee workers the minimum wage or hire outside employees.
It’s too soon to say whether back pay would be possible, given that the issue goes back years and the attorney general’s office has not yet seen records of detainees’ work, he said ― not to mention the fact that some of the people allegedly underpaid have likely since been deported.
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project executive director Jorge Barón said that he and his staff have met with detainees in the state who have lived in Washington for decades, along with asylum-seekers and people who entered the country as unaccompanied minors. He thanked Ferguson for stepping in to help both them and others who have lost out because of the low wages.
“If we don’t allow people to be exploited in our state ... everybody benefits,” Barón said at the same press conference as Ferguson. “Because when corporations are able to exploit a particular set of workers, that actually has impacts across the board for all workers across our communities.”