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Class-Action Suit Against CoreCivic ICE Detention Center Allowed to Proceed

by Christopher Zoukis

A lawsuit alleging that private prison operator CoreCivic violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) by forcing immigrant detainees to work at one of the company’s detention centers will proceed in federal court. The class-action claim withstood a motion to dismiss on August 17, 2018.

CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, operates the Stewart Detention Center – an immigration facility in Stewart, Georgia. The detention center has nearly 2,000 beds and is one of the largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)-contracted facilities in the country. It also has a notorious reputation.

CoreCivic makes use of a “voluntary work program” at Stewart. Pursuant to that program, detainees who agree to perform various jobs maintaining the facility are paid between $1 and $4 per day. They also are afforded upgraded living conditions, which consist of showers with hot water, a toilet shared with one person (instead of 66 people) and a two-person cell instead of a dorm unit known as “the Chicken Coop.” Further, workers are able to earn money to purchase toilet paper and soap, which the CoreCivic-operated facility does not adequately provide.

Multiple detainees at Stewart filed a class-action suit alleging the company violated the TVPA by operating a “deprivation scheme,” in which it forced detainees to work through threats of physical violence, solitary confinement and deprivation of basic necessities. [See: PLN, Aug. 2018, p.50]. The plaintiffs said the scheme operated as follows: 1) CoreCivic deprived detainees of basic necessities, such as toilet paper; 2) detainees must participate in the voluntary work program to live in non-deplorable conditions and earn money for necessities; and 3) detainees who agree to work are threatened with harm or actually harmed if they later refuse to work. Indeed, the plaintiffs noted the company’s “detainee orientation handbook” explained that refusal to work or organizing a work stoppage would result in criminal charges.

CoreCivic moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the TVPA is not intended to apply to lawfully-held detainees. Specifically, it argued the TVPA is intended to apply narrowly to forced labor in the human trafficking context, and that extending the statute to detainee work programs would be absurd. That argument failed, though, because Congress did not limit the application of the TVPA in such a manner. In denying the company’s motion to dismiss, U.S. District Court Judge Clay D. Land said that while Congress could have placed such a limitation on the TVPA, it did not.

Judge Clay was not entirely convinced that the plaintiffs would prevail in their TVPA claim, however. In his view, the law did apply in the context argued by the plaintiffs.

However, because the TVPA claim was the sole basis for federal jurisdiction in what could result in lengthy and expensive class-action litigation, he granted a Certificate of Immediate Appeal. In doing so, the judge allowed CoreCivic to file an immediate interlocutory appeal of his ruling to the Eleventh Circuit. On December 12, 2018, the company did just that.

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-based attorney Andrew Free. See: Barrientos v. CoreCivic, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ga.), Case No. 4:18-cv-00070-CDL. 

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Related legal case

Barrientos v. CoreCivic, Inc.