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Federal Judge Allows 'Nationwide' Class-Action Lawsuit Against GEO Over Alleged Forced Labor on Prisoners

by Dale Chappell

A federal judge has granted class-action status in a federal lawsuit filed against GEO Group, alleging the private, for-profit company forced immigration detainees to work in order to avoid punishment.
The ruling by Judge Jesus G. Bernal of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California was a serious blow to the company's profits, says Northeastern University political science professor Jacqueline Stevens. She estimated that the savings by using detainee labor accounted for about 25 percent of GEO's net profits, based on financial disclosures made by the company in public records.
The lawsuit was filed by Raul Novoa, an immigration detainee being held at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Adelanto, California. GEO has a contract to run the facility, one of more than a dozen such facilities it operates across the country.
Novoa claimed that he and the approximately 2,000 detainees at the facility were forced to work under the threat of punishment and deprivation of basic needs, such as adequate food, hygiene supplies, and clothing.
The lawsuit exposed emails from GEO employees saying that detainees are required to work to help maintain the facility, work that GEO employees are supposed to do. "We need all shifts to start putting detainees to work," one email instructed staff. "I don't want excuses, just action."
Detainees, according to ICE policy, "shall not be required to work, except to do personal housekeeping." That's defined as making their beds and keeping personal property in order and free of clutter. Anything more than that requires the detainee to be paid.
GEO employs six janitors for it's 2,000-bed facility to clean the areas not accessible by detainees, such as offices. There are only 40 paid positions available under the "Voluntary Work Program" that pays detainees a dollar a day who are chosen to work. This money paid to detainees is then reimbursed to GEO by ICE. But those positions are usually full and require detainees to work for free until a spot opens, court papers said.
Detainees who refuse to work outside their normal housekeeping duties face punishment. According to GEO policy, that punishment includes disciplinary segregation, more criminal charges, fines (if they have the money in their account), and policy recommends disciplinary transfers for violators.
GEO did not dispute in the lawsuit that this policy exists.
The lawsuit alleged that GEO's forced work policy violated both the California and federal Trafficking and Victims Protection Act. Each law prohibits "forced labor" on anyone, whether they're in prison or not. GEO responded that the detainees "voluntarily chose" to work for "personal reasons" or because they "wished to make new friends."
Though only 40 positions were available at Adelanto, the warden testified in a deposition that 200 to 300 detainees worked in just  the kitchen alone. Not only did detainees claim that they had to work just to get their basic supplies, but they also had to work in order to see their lawyers or visit with their families.
The class definition accepted by the court was anyone who (1) was at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center from December 19, 2014 to present; (2) performed work for no compensation awaiting placement in the Voluntary Work Program; (3) participated in the Voluntary Work Program; or (4) performed work for no compensation under the Adelanto Housing Unit Sanitation Policy.
The ruling was a breakthrough, said Andrew Free, an attorney for the detainees. "For the first time, everybody who's locked up in a GEO immigration prison, and who's subject to the allegedly illegal policies, how has someone that they can look to as a voice, to bring their own treatment to light." See: Novoa v. The GEO Group, Inc., 5:17-cv-02514 (CD Cal Nov 26, 2019).

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Related legal case

Novoa v. The GEO Group, Inc