$1/day "Volunteer" Work Program Comes Under Fire
For Immediate Release: Contact: Maru Mora Villalpando, 206 251 6658, firstname.lastname@example.org
September 20th 2017
Hunger Strike Victory: Washington State files suit vs GEO Group, private prison company that owns Northwest Detention Center
Tacoma, WA – The Attorney General of Washington announced a lawsuit today against the private prison profiteers, GEO Group, who own and run the Tacoma, Washington immigration prison, the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC). The lawsuit is a direct result of over three years of hunger strikes and work stoppages by people detained at the facility. This year alone, there have been five hunger strikes, and whistle-blowers have faced repression from both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and GEO Group, in the form of solitary confinement, threats of force-feeding, and retaliatory transfers to different facilities across the country. Today's lawsuit by the Attorney General represents a victory for hunger strikers, whose heroic efforts to bring light to the abuses of immigration detention despite repression have led the state of Washington to take action.
The lawsuit takes on one of the most consistent demands of people on hunger strike - the abuses of the $1/day "volunteer" work program. People detained carry out nearly all of the work of the facility, from cleaning to laundry to painting to routine maintenance, including waxing the floors. Hunger strikers have described receiving no training, no protective gear, and to suffering workplace injuries that go untreated. One recent communication from a detained person stated, "We worked until three this morning. We were painting the detention center." Another stated, "This week folks were offered chips or a soup for several nights of waxing the floors, so not even $1/day."
NWDC Resistance has been documenting the immigrant-led resistance against ICE and GEO Group at the Tacoma facility. An 11-minute documentary on the recent hunger-strikes which led to the filing of the Attorney General's lawsuit was released today.
It is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGG8b7bB1to&feature=youtu.be&app=desktop , and features hunger strikers. "The people most affected by the Northwest Detention Center – those detained – have been leading the resistance against it. We are glad to see the Attorney General stepping up to join their fight," said Maru Mora Villalpando of NWDC Resistance. She pointed out that the federal government must be held accountable as well: "The federal government set the $1/day rate, and ICE continues to round up and cage people at the GEO-run facilities, and ignore GEO’s abuses."
To arrange interviews with people detained and formerly detained on the subject of the lawsuit and work program, please contact NWDC Resistance.
NWDC Resistance is a volunteer community group that emerged to fight deportations in 2014 at the now-infamous Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA. NWDC Resistance supports people detained who organized hunger strikes asking for a halt to all deportations and better treatment and conditions.
Washington AG Sues Prison Operators For 'Making Millions' Exploiting Detainees
Detained immigrants awaiting hearings are paid $1 a day or in chips and candy for labor, suit contends. GEO Group refutes the accusations.
By Susan C. Schena (Patch Staff) - Updated September 20, 2017 SEATTLE PATCH
TACOMA, WA — The state of Washington filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the operators of the state's only private detention facility, accusing the company of netting "millions in ill-gotten profits" by paying its immigration detainee workers either $1 per day or sometimes in snacks and extra food in violation of minimum wage laws.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced the suit against The GEO Group Inc., the second-largest private prison provider in the country, for not paying its workers the minimum wage since at least 2005.
“A multi-billion dollar corporation is trying to get away with paying its workers $1 per day,” Ferguson said. “That shouldn’t happen in America, and I will not tolerate it happening in Washington. For-profit companies cannot exploit Washington workers.”
Florida-based GEO Group strongly refutes the allegations, labeling them "baseless and meritless."
"We intend to vigorously defend our company against these claims," said company spokesperson Pablo E. Paez. "The volunteer work program at all federal immigration facilities, as well as the minimum wage rates and standards associated with the program, are set exclusively by the federal government under mandated performance-based national detention standards, which were promulgated by the Obama Administration in 2011."
The state’s lawsuit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court, asks the court to order the company to give up the profits purportedly being generated at the Northwest Detention Center, located on Tacoma's Tideflats and the fourth-largest immigration detention center in the country. People are held at the facility while undergoing immigration proceedings and potentially facing deportation, the attorney general said.
State officials said GEO uses immigration detainee labor to perform virtually all non-security functions at the facility, which can house up to 1,575 immigrant detainees.
"Detainees perform most of the work necessary to run the facility except guarding detainees. This includes preparing and serving food, running the laundry services, performing facility maintenance, and cleaning common areas and restrooms," the state AG office said. "Detainees report that the general practice is that guards ask for detainee 'volunteers' for work. If no one volunteers for certain work, guards will sometimes pick detainees to perform the work."
Detainees’ complaints about being paid $1 per day or being paid in snack food are among several concerns they raised during multiple hunger strikes in the past year, the state said.
The lawsuit, possibly the first of its kind brought by a state attorney general, contends GEO is violating Washington’s wage laws, as the state’s minimum wage is $11 per hour.
“The bottom line is that a fair wage should be paid for a day of work,” said Joel Sacks, director of the state Department of Labor and Industries, which regulates wage standards in Washington state.
Attorney general office investigators claim many detainees relayed such concerns regarding work at NWDC, including working through the night buffing floors and painting walls in exchange for chips and candy.
"Detainees told investigators that if an officer asks a detainee to work on a special project later than the planned end of the shift, detainees are allowed to stop working but may not receive any pay for their work," the office said. "Detainees also reported that for some work, GEO does not provide appropriate working gear and that has caused detainees physical pain and discomfort."
Florida-based GEO has operated the facility for Immigration and Customs Enforcement since 2005 and has been in partnership with ICE since the 1980s, the state office said. In 2015, ICE renewed GEO's contract for NWDC through 2025. At the time the contract was renewed, GEO projected NWDC would bring in $57 million in revenue every year at full capacity, according to the attorney general's office.
The state's claims against GEO include the accusation of violating Washington’s minimum wage laws. The laws do have the following exemption: “Any resident, inmate, or patient of a state, county, or municipal correctional, detention, treatment or rehabilitative institution.”
However, there are no exceptions for private, for-profit facilities like NWDC, which in contrast to government-run jails or prisons that hold prisoners in the criminal justice system, houses detainees pending civil immigration proceedings, according to the attorney general.
Ferguson's claim also argues that GEO "unjustly enriched itself, meaning it profited by its illegal actions exploiting its workers."
NWDC is one of 141 correctional and detention facilities operated by the company, which saw revenues exceeding $2 billion in 2016, according the the state office.
GEO officials, however, maintain that the company's facilities, including in Tacoma, are of high standards.
"All ICE facilities operated by GEO, including the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments that meet the non-penal, non-punitive needs of individuals in the care and custody of federal immigration authorities pursuant to the Federal government’s national standards," Paez said.
Yet Washington's attorney general's office counters that GEO has faced a variety of lawsuits, including a class action suit by current and former detainees at a Colorado facility alleging forced labor.
The state agency did note that NWDC has faced ample controversies of its own, including multiple hunger strikes by detainees over living conditions, access to medical care and other problems at the facility. As many as 750 detainees reportedly participated in one hunger strike earlier this year.
Ferguson’s lawsuit asks the court to order GEO to comply with Washington’s minimum wage laws and to reimburse Washington for the lawsuit's costs and to give up the profits allegedly made by "underpaying its employees over many years. The exact amount will be determined as the lawsuit progresses, but is expected to be in the millions," the AG office said.
If the court grants this request, the attorney general’s office will likely ask the court to place any monetary award into a trust or fund, the department stated, adding that the "fund would be dedicated to supporting people detained in NWDC, as well as job seekers in the community surrounding the detention center who may have lost employment opportunities because of GEO’s practices."
The GEO Group has 20 days from the date it is served to respond to the state’s complaint. Assistant Attorneys General La Rond Baker and Marsha Chien are leading the case for the attorney general’s office.
2nd lawsuit says Tacoma detention center must pay minimum wage
Former detainee Chao Chen filed the class-action federal lawsuit Tuesday against The GEO Group, the for-profit company that operates the Northwest Detention Center.
By The Associated Press September 27 2017 – Published in Seattle Times
A second lawsuit is challenging the failure of one of the nation’s largest private immigration jails to pay detainees minimum wage for the work they perform.
Former detainee Chao Chen filed the class-action federal lawsuit Tuesday against The GEO Group, the for-profit company that operates the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the company in state court last week, alleging violations of Washington’s minimum wage law.
GEO says the center has a volunteer work program and minimum wages rates and standards specified exclusively by the federal government under standards set for detainees in 2011.
The company pays $1 per day to detainees for kitchen, cleaning and janitorial tasks at the 1,500-bed facility. Chen, a Chinese citizen who was detained from 2014 to 2016, is a legal permanent resident of the U.S. and lives in Renton.