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Federal Jury Orders GEO Group to Pay $23 Million for Immigrant Detainee Slave Labor in Washington

In a landmark case, a federal jury decided against the GEO Group for paying $1 dollar a day wages to immigrant detainees at its privately-operated prison in Washington.

The facility in question is the Northwest ICE Processing Center (formerly the Northwest Detention Center) in Tacoma located on a toxic waste Superfund site and a lava flood zone. The 1,575-bed facility is run by GEO and holds detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It is one of the largest facilities of its kind in the United States, although its population has dropped to about 400 since the pandemic.

On October 27, 2021, the jury found GEO was responsible to pay $17.3 million in back wages to more than 10,000 detainees who deserved a minimum wage, now $13.69 an hour. Additionally, U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan ordered GEO to return profits to Washington state in the amount of $5,950,340, and end its “voluntary” work program.

The lawsuit against GEO for what is essentially slave labor has been working its way through the federal courts for four years.

Detainees at the Northwest ICE Processing Center filed a lawsuit against GEO in 2017, with the assistance of the Seattle law firm of Schroeter Goldmark & Bender and Nashville Attorney Andrew Free, alleging they were paid $1 per day through the company’s so called voluntary work program. Their jobs included cleaning the facility, washing laundry, cleaning dishes, and staffing a barber shop and library. [See: Nwauzor v. GEO Group, USDC, W. Dist. WA, Case No. C17-5769RJB.]

In 2017, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson also filed a separate lawsuit alleging GEO Group was violating the state’s minimum wage law and was required to pay detainees the state’s minimum wages for their labor. [See: Washington v. GEO Group, USDC, W. Dist. WA, Case No. 3:17-cv-05806-RJB.]

U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan consolidated the cases for trial, which was conducted this past summer via Zoom due to the pandemic. In June 2021, the first trial over whether GEO had to pay detainees in accordance with Washington’s minimum wage ended in a hung jury. At a retrial in October 2021, the jury ruled in favor of the prisoners and the judge ruled in favor of the state of Washington.

At issue in the case was whether or not detainees are employees and have a right to a minimum wage. According to Washington law, state, county and municipal prisoners are not entitled to the state minimum wage, but there is no exception for private for-profit detainees.

GEO cited a similar case last year in the Fourth Circuit in New Mexico where its competitor CoreCivic won a favorable ruling at its Cibola County facility. There, a federal judge rejected the suit, and an appeals court upheld the decision. [See: Ndambi v. CoreCivic, 990 F.3d 369 (4th Cir. 2021), and also pg. 24 this issue of PLN.]

Washington is at the center of a national fight over immigration. Earlier this year, the state passed a bill banning private prisons, and other bills like it have been passed in California and elsewhere.

The work program at the Northwest ICE Processing Center has since been halted and GEO has appealed the case. GEO said the company has enough money on hand “to pay the Judgments twenty times over,” but disagreed with the decision. Evidence at trial showed that even paying the prisoners the minimum wage for their labor, GEO would have still made at least $15 million per year in profits from its federal contract with ICE.

“This is a landmark victory for workers’ rights and basic human dignity,” Ferguson said in a written statement. 


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Related legal cases

Ndambi v. CoreCivic Inc.

Washington v. GEO Group

Nwauzor v. GEO Group