A federal judge has allowed a lawsuit to go forward claiming that Boca Raton-based GEO Group, the nation's largest federal contractor of private immigration detention facilities, is guilty of violating human trafficking laws by forcing detainees to perform manual labor for a meager $1 per day or no pay at all.
The multi-million dollar class action lawsuit was brought forth by nine federal immigrant detainees of an Aurora, Colorado facility and accuses the company of violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a federal law designed to protect victims of the sex trade, slavery, and involuntary servitude. In the immigrants' case, it's the slavery and involuntary servitude part of that law that GEO broke, by allegedly forcing immigrants to work maintenance jobs for the facility or else face repercussions, such as solitary confinement.
"Using forced detainee labor is an integral tool in maintaining GEO's profitability under its contracts with ICE," Nashville attorney Andrew Free, a co-counsel in the case, said in a statement. "The court's decision today represents an important step forward in ending that morally bankrupt business model."
The complaint alleges that detainees at the Colorado facility were forced to clean the medical facilities toilets, floors, and windows, patient rooms and medical staff offices. They also cooked detainee meals and did laundry from the medical facility, among other tasks.
For some work, immigrants were given $1 a day. For other work, such as cleaning the housing pods, they were given no pay and were threatened with solitary confinement as punishment if they refused, according to the complaint, which points out GEO's annual revenue exceeded $1.5 billion in 2013.
"It's their job to run the facility, and instead they used and abused us to run the facility, and that's why we're suing," plaintiff Alejandro Menocal, 53, told the AP. Menocal is a legal permanent resident who was arrested for driving with a suspended license and having his wife's painkillers in the car. Legal residents are often detained in immigration facilities pending criminal charges and Menocal did three months in the Aurora, CO facility before his release.
In a statement, GEO defended its actions, saying the work done by immigrants was voluntary.
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“GEO’s facilities, including the Aurora, Colo. facility, provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary,” the private prison company says. “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.”
In the complaint, plaintiffs claim that GEO announced a “Housing Unit Sanitation” policy that said “[e]ach and every detainee must participate in the facility’s sanitation program.”
In addition to the federal trafficking law, the complaint accused GEO of breaking Colorado's minimum wage law. However, this complaint was thrown out by U.S. District Court Judge John L. Kane because the detainees didn't qualify as employees under state law.
At the time the lawsuit was announced on July 8, four of the nine immigrant plaintiffs were still in federal custody.