On February 27th, John Kane, a US District Judge of Denver, CO, allowed 62,000 plaintiffs to continue with a class action lawsuit against GEO Group, a private prison company that runs 64 correctional facilities in the US.
The plaintiffs, all current or former detainees of an immigrant detention center in Aurora, CO, claim that guards threatened detainees with three days of solitary confinement if they failed to complete assigned duties. Additionally, about 2,000 plaintiffs say that they were only paid a fraction of the amount owed them and that GEO unjustly garnered profits by paying $1 a day for labor that included preparing food and doing laundry. In total, the suit seeks $5 million dollars in damages.
The original court filing, in 2014, included only nine people, but with Kane’s ruling, the case has been expanded to include all those affected by GEO’s alleged forced-labor practices going back to October 2004. Though Kane denied GEO’s request to summarily reject the case, it should be noted that he upheld a request to dismiss the claim that detainees were underpaid as per Colorado’s Minimum Wages of Workers Act.
GEO denies the allegations and according to their spokesperson, Pablo Paez, “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.” As for the claims regarding coerced labor, the private prison company says that duties, such as cleaning mattresses and mopping floors, were merely part of maintaining a cleanly living space and that no detainee was ever placed in solitary confinement. However, according to Judge Kane, it is irrelevant whether any detainee has ever been thrown into solitary confinement because forced-labor statute prohibits all forms of coercion including threats.
Widening the Aperture
This marks the first time ever that a private prison company has been sued for forced-labor. Alternatively, this is not the first time that incarcerated individuals have stood up to the powers-that-be to obtain the bare minimum of paid labor. For instance, on September 9th, 2016, a nationwide prison strike took place, taking as its central aim the “end to prison slavery.” Though these are discrete events with distinct contexts and aims, we would be remiss if we didn’t also read them as part of a wider political-economic context where mass deportation and mass incarceration serve a similar purpose.
According to Ethan Blue, a historian specializing in punishment, “By the 1990s […] the U.S. mass deportation assemblage would parallel and interweave with the system of mass incarceration. Both were responses to the structural forces of neoliberalism, efforts to contain the workers made redundant by corporate flight to Mexico or China, by automation, or both.”
Read this way, the class action suit appears in a new light as a viable tactic for speaking truth to power and bringing justice to those who are disproportionately affected by the carceral apparatus. Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, a Colorado-based nonprofit group, highlights this point when she says, “Certification of the class is perhaps the only mechanism by which these vulnerable individuals who were dispersed across the country and across the world would ever be able to vindicate their rights.”
Finally, this case comes at a pivotal moment when, according to the New York Times, Trump aims to publicize criminal activity of immigrants; take privacy rights away from immigrants; build new detention facilities; and quicken the rate of deportation to the tune of two million people. Looking forward, If the plaintiffs win the case, the cost of housing detainees could go up exponentially, making it much more difficult to fund these draconian measures.