In a groundbreaking case in Colorado, a 2014 lawsuit alleging forced labor at a Denver-area ICE facility run by a private prison company has expanded to a class action suit that could involve tens of thousands of immigrant detainees.
District Court Judge John Kane ruled Monday to give the case a class action certification, marking the first time a private prison company has been sued in a class action suit for forced labor and the first time a judge has allowed such a claim to move forward. Attorneys on the case can now sue on behalf of anyone held at the Aurora Detention Facility (stated capacity: 1,532) since October 2004. Andrew Free, a lawyer on the case, told the Daily Beast that means as many as 60,000 plaintiffs could ultimately join the suit.
The nine original plaintiffs are all current or former detainees at the center in Aurora, Colorado, operated on behalf of ICE by the private-prison behemoth The GEO Group. Plaintiffs contend that the GEO Group violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act when it required detainees to clean private and shared areas of the center “without any compensation and under the threat of solitary confinement,” thereby unjustly enriching the company. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act prohibits forced or coerced labor.
Plaintiffs claim that GEO Group, by paying detainees $1 a day, violated Colorado’s Minimum Wages of Workers Act, which guarantees a minimum wage of $9.38 an hour.
The prison company moved to dismiss all claims in the suit. On Monday, Judge Kane allowed GEO Group’s motion with regards to Colorado’s minimum wage, but upheld the plaintiffs’ claims of unjust enrichment and forced labor.
The implications of the case are threefold. First, it is moving forward at a time when the Trump administration has increased immigration enforcement activities and has ordered the construction of expanded detention facilities. Second, an Obama-administration order last August to phase out the use of private detention centers and prisons was rescinded last week by Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Thirdly, the issue of low-paid or forced prison labor received a national spotlight last year when inmates across the country launched coordinated strikes and protests, with demands including an end to forced prison labor and better wages.
“When you’re locked up in a detention facility, there are opportunities for coercion that are unimaginable in the free world,” said Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “If you are assigned as a worker, and you try to call in sick for work, the private prison company who runs it can throw you into solitary for refusing to work. There is no parallel to that in any sort of regular employment situation.”
“We have consistently, strongly refuted these allegations, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” said Pablo Paez, VP of corporate relations for the The GEO Group. “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, including the Aurora facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments pursuant to the Federal Government’s national standards.”
According to a report by CIVIC, a nonprofit aiming to end immigrant detention, about 34,000 people are held in immigrant detention centers across the country. An estimated 60 percent of them are held in privately-run detention facilities. Cheap labor in those centers saves the government and private prison companies more than $40 million a year, according to the New York Times.