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Settlement marks step toward ending abuses at for-profit immigrant prisons

In 2015, when Wilhen Hill Barrientos was sent to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, after seeking asylum in the U.S., he could either work for nearly nothing or lose access to basic necessities, safety and privacy.

He was told that if he refused, he would be placed in solitary confinement. He also would not have enough money to pay for food or costly phone calls to his family.

Barrientos ultimately worked in the kitchen, helping cook meals for up to 2,000 people each day. He regularly worked eight- to nine-hour shifts, seven days a week, and usually received $4 to $5 per day – about 50 cents per hour. After he filed a grievance for being forced to work while sick, he was put in medical segregation for more than a month.

In 2018, Barrientos was one of several people detained at Stewart who filed suit against CoreCivic, the for-profit company operating the facility under a federal contract. The federal lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Project South. The two organizations were later joined by pro bono counsel from the law firm Perkins Coie LLP. The complaint describes violations of anti-trafficking laws that unjustly enriched CoreCivic.

After five years of litigation, a settlement was reached last month as the trial was set to begin.

As part of the agreement, CoreCivic will be required to notify all detained immigrants participating in the work program at Stewart of their rights, including their right to refuse to work. The document provided to detained workers, written in both Spanish and English, will state that they can’t be forced to work and have the right to prompt monetary compensation, relevant training, necessary safety equipment and respect from staff.

“The declaration of rights is a call to action to those in immigration jails to keep fighting for justice, and it makes clear that they should not face the abuses that I suffered at Stewart,” Barrientos said.

If the terms of the settlement are not met, the plaintiffs can bring the case back to court to have it enforced.

“We will be there monitoring compliance,” said Efrén Olivares, the interim director of strategic litigation for the SPLC. “They have undertaken the obligation of providing a worker bill of rights. As a result of this settlement, every person detained who is considering participating in this program will know their rights.”

Spinning the result

The settlement allowed CoreCivic to deny any wrongdoing in executing policies that, as the plaintiffs alleged, equated to forced labor while they were being detained. In its statement, the company claimed that all work that detained people perform at its facilities is voluntary and that the policies and procedures called for in the settlement had been in place for years.

The settlement meant that there was no public trial.

According to Olivares, that trade-off is a desired outcome for companies like CoreCivic.

“The companies try to fight this every step of the way,” Olivares said. “The closer we got to trial, the higher the pressure. A publicly traded company is typically not thrilled about having this program and their business practices on trial.”

CoreCivic, along with The GEO Group, is one of two publicly traded private prison companies operating immigration detention facilities in the U.S.

The lawsuit is one of several similar cases making their way through the legal system. In California, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit certified class action status for a forced-labor case against CoreCivic last year. Although attorneys sought class action status in the Georgia case, the trial judge denied the motion.

In a Washington case, a jury found The GEO Group responsible for violating the state’s minimum wage law for operating a program similar to the one at Stewart and fined the company $23 million. That case is on appeal at the Ninth Circuit as well.

Looking forward

The settlement does not protect CoreCivic from future challenges brought by detained workers at Stewart.

The pressure in the courts comes at a time when private prison companies are transitioning from the operation of state prisons to immigrant detention. Although that process has been underway for decades, it began shifting more toward immigrant detention as the bloom of private criminal prisons faded.

In 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to prevent the U.S. Department of Justice from entering into or renewing contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities. Additionally, three states – New York, Illinois and Iowa – have passed laws preventing private prisons from being used.

According to their annual reports in 2021, CoreCivic and The GEO Group each grossed more than $550 million in contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those contracts make up roughly a third of the companies’ total revenues.

“The one very concrete thing that this settlement achieves is that workers now know they cannot be forced to partake in the program,” Olivares said.

Forced labor is only one of myriad ways in which immigration detention subjects thousands of individuals to abuse at taxpayer-funded facilities. For example, the SPLC and Project South, along with several partner organizations, filed a federal civil rights/civil liberties complaint in July 2022 on behalf of four women detained at Stewart who claimed that a male nurse at the facility abused them between September 2021 and January 2022.

“What we know for sure, though, is that detained immigrants at Stewart will now be notified that they are free to participate in the work program or not,” Olivares said. “And that’s a meaningful win we can celebrate.”

Photo at top: The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, is shown in a photo from 2019. (Credit: AP/David Goldman)