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Weekend Read: When volunteering isn't voluntary

When Wilhen Hill Barrientos filed a complaint for being forced to work while he was sick, officers put him in medical segregation for chicken pox, a diagnosis that seemed unlikely since he'd contracted it as a child. 

He was left there for two months, prolonging the resolution of his immigration case.

When he refused to work a 2 a.m. shift because he was scheduled to also start a shift eight hours later, an officer threatened to move him to another cell. He relented out of fear of being placed a dormitory that was in such bad condition that it was known as "the Chicken Coop."

When he needed toilet paper, an officer told him to use his fingers.

Barrientos is an immigrant from Guatemala and one of nearly 2,000 men who are being detained at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. They're being held only for civil charges related to their immigration status but nonetheless have been swept up in the Trump administration's deportation dragnet.

Barrientos regularly works eight- to nine-hour shifts, seven days a week. For as little as $1 a day, detainees mop, sweep and wax floors; scrub toilets and showers; wash dishes; do laundry; clean medical facilities; and cook and prepare food.

The men are permitted to use their paltry wages to purchase basic necessities like toilet paper from the prison commissary – the "company store." They can't purchase those items anywhere else.

The men at Stewart are working under threat of physical restraint, serious harm, or abuse of the legal process. Nothing about that is "voluntary."

But it's a lucrative arrangement for CoreCivic, a private prison company with revenues of $1.8 billion last year. The company owns the prison and gets paid $62 a day, per detainee, from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to manage it.

In effect, according to a suit filed by the SPLC this week, CoreCivic is operating a forced labor scheme that enables it to drastically reduce its operating costs in order to maximize profits. The "voluntary" work program means it doesn't have to recruit from the local labor market, pay minimum wages, pay payroll taxes, provide benefits, or pay the costs of potential unionization — and it reduces the chance that the men detained there will be able to act as whistleblowers about Stewart's deplorable conditions.

Take the dorm called the "Chicken Coop." As our attorneys write:

There is no privacy. The lights in these dorms are on all day and night, requiring some detained immigrants to fold socks over their eyes in order to sleep. There is one bathroom in these dorms with three to four toilets, three to four urinals, and four sinks. This shared bathroom is often filthy, to the extent that the pod residents at times have to plug or cover their noses to avoid the overwhelming and festering stench. The showers in the open dormitories do not have temperature control and provide only extremely hot water.

Our class action is among those filed in three states against CoreCivic for horrific practices that — at least in Stewart — violate anti-trafficking laws for the sake of the company's bottom line.

Stewart has been called as "the black hole of America's immigration system." No wonder.

Our Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative will be on the ground in Stewart and other immigration prisons in the Deep South until detained immigrants there are treated with the humanity and decency that the Constitution and our nation's underlying values demand.

The Editors

P.S. Here are a few other pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC’s Weekend Read is a weekly summary of the most important news reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequality, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive the Weekend Read every Saturday morning.