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Federal Class-action Accuses CoreCivic of Exploiting Immigrant Detainee Labor

by Derek Gilna

A federal class-action suit filed on April 17, 2018 in the Middle District of Georgia accuses private prison behemoth CoreCivic – formerly Corrections Corporation of America – of exploiting immigrant detainees who perform work in the company’s ICE detention facilities, specifically at the Stewart Detention Center in central Georgia.

The complaint alleges violations of state and federal labor laws. According to one of the attorneys representing the proposed class, Azadeh Shahshahani, legal director for Project South, “CoreCivic is exploiting the labor of detained immigrants to enrich itself. It must be stopped.”

CoreCivic, the largest private prison operator in the U.S., has been the target of numerous lawsuits in states where it maintains detention facilities for inadequate medical treatment and employee misconduct, and has been fined millions of dollars by various government agencies for contract violations. Prison Legal News has extensively covered these various scandals, which include the common threads of cutting corners and exploiting prisoners in order to increase profits.

Although legal precedent does not uniformly restrict corrections officials from compelling healthy prisoners to work, the complaint notes that the legal status of detained immigrants is different: “Immigration violations are civil violations, and immigration detention is civil in nature. Many detained immigrants have no criminal history at all. Notwithstanding immigration detention’s civil nature and purpose, detained immigrants are subjected to prison-like conditions at Stewart.”

Further, according to the lawsuit, “CoreCivic’s economic windfall, and the profitability of its immigration detention enterprise, arises from its corporate scheme, plan, and pattern of systemically withholding basic necessities from detained immigrants to ensure a readily available, captive labor force that cleans, maintains, and operates its facilities for subminimum wages under threat of solitary confinement, criminal prosecution, and other sanctions.

“CoreCivic’s deprivation scheme,” the complaint continues, “ensures that the individuals detained in Stewart provide the billion-dollar corporation with a ready supply of available labor needed to operate the facility. Detained immigrants mop, sweep, and wax floors; scrub toilets and showers; wash dishes; do laundry; clean medical facilities; and cook and prepare food and beverages daily for the nearly 2,000 individuals locked inside Stewart. For this labor, CoreCivic pays detained immigrants between $1 and $4 per day and occasionally slightly more for double shifts. When CoreCivic needs ‘volunteers’ to work double shifts in the kitchen or to work more than five days per week, as it often does to run Stewart, it employs a policy of threatening detained immigrants until they comply. Under no circumstances does CoreCivic pay the detained immigrant workers anything close to the federal minimum wage.”

The lawsuit was filed by three plaintiffs, Wilhen Hill Barrientos, Margarito Velazquez Galicia and Shoahib Ahmed. They noted that detainees were willing to work for the low pay because they needed money to purchase hygiene items and make phone calls. Previously, an Inspector General report found that CoreCivic staff at Stewart did not give detainees soap or toothpaste, or even toilet paper, “promptly or at all when detainees ran out of them.” Instead, they had to purchase such items from the facility’s commissary. The meager wages also were needed to pay for phone calls.

“If I didn’t work, I would never be able to call my family,” said Barrientos, who has been held in detention for almost three years while seeking asylum.

Detainees who refuse to perform “voluntary” work assignments remain in dorm housing units instead of two-person cells that are private and safer.

“The lights in these dorms are on all day and night, requiring some detained immigrants to fold socks over their eyes in order to sleep,” the complaint states. “There is one bathroom in these dorms with three to four toilets, three to four urinals, and four sinks. This shared bathroom is often filthy, to the extent that the pod residents at times have to plug or cover their noses to avoid the overwhelming and festering stench. The showers in the open dormitories do not have temperature control and provide only extremely hot water. The open dormitories are also the site of frequent conflict and even violence. Indeed, the detained immigrants refer to open dormitories as ‘El Gallinero,’ or ‘the Chicken Coop,’ for both the conditions and overcrowded living quarters.”

According to Meredith Stewart, a senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, “CoreCivic is placing profits above people by forcing detained immigrants to perform manual labor for next to nothing, saving millions of dollars that would otherwise provide jobs and stimulate the local economy. CoreCivic is padding its pockets by violating anti-trafficking laws.”

In response, CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns countered that its ICE detention center work programs are voluntary and operate “in full compliance with ICE standards,” adding, “We have worked in close partnership with ICE for more than 30 years and will continue to provide a safe and humane environment to those entrusted to our care.”

In addition to the Southern Poverty Law Center and Project South, the plaintiffs in the class-action suit are represented by the law firm of Burns Charest LLP and Nashville, Tennessee attorney Andrew Free. See: Barrientos v. CoreCivic, Inc., U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ga.), Case No. 4:18-cv-00070-CDL.

Similar lawsuits have been filed against CoreCivic competitor GEO Group, accusing that company of exploiting immigrant detainees by paying them $1.00 per day for their labor in order to increase its profit margin, too. [See: PLN, June 2018, p.38]. 


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Related legal case

Barrientos v. CoreCivic, Inc.