By: BETSY WOODRUFF
The nation’s second largest private prison company is facing some serious legal challenges—and other companies may soon be in the same situation.
On Monday, a federal judge ruled that current and former detainees held at an immigrant detention center in Colorado can join a class-action lawsuit against GEO Group, a private prison company. The plaintiffs allege that the GEO Group forced detainees to work for extremely low wages or for no wages at all, and in some cases threatened detainees with solitary confinement as punishment if they refused to work. The center holds undocumented immigrants facing deportation.
“This is the first lawsuit of its kind in the history of the United States,” said Andrew Free, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “This is the first time that a private prison company has ever been accused of forced labor, and this is the first time that a judge has ever found that the claims can go forward under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the bans in federal law on forced labor.”
GEO Group rejects the allegations.
“We have consistently, strongly refuted these allegations, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” Pablo Paez, a spokesman for the company, told The Daily Beast. “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, Colo. Facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments pursuant to the Federal Government’s national standards.”
In the ruling, Judge John Kane granted a motion for class certification—meaning attorneys are assigned to sue on behalf of all detainees held at the facility since Oct. 22, 2004. Free told The Daily Beast he thinks the class could include as many as 60,000 people.
“GEO’s policies of forcing immigrant detainees to work for free on threat of solitary confinement or for a dollar a day are part of a broken system, said Alexander Hood of the group Towards Justice, who is also an attorney for the plaintiffs. “GEO’s Aurora facility is being run on the backs of detainees, with GEO’s profits flowing from abusing this cheap detainee labor.”
The judge’s ruling could encourage similar lawsuits against other immigrant detention centers, according to Free. That, in turn, that could have significant implications for President Donald Trump’s immigration enforcement plans. Trump’s immigration executive orders require the dramatic expansion of immigrant detention. And upward of 65 percent of immigrants currently being detained are held in facilities managed by private prison companies, including GEO Group. The lawsuit could potentially force those companies to spend more on cleaning services—paying detainees or outside employees the minimum wage to clean their facilities—which could reduce their profit margins. And that could ultimately make immigrant detention more expensive or less profitable.