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Barrientos v. CoreCivic

Detained immigrants were forced to work for as little as $1 a day cleaning, cooking and performing maintenance duties at a privately operated immigrant detention center in Stewart County, Georgia, as part of a scheme to maximize its profits, according to a class action lawsuit the Southern Poverty Law Center filed in 2018 against private prison company CoreCivic Inc.

CoreCivic subjects people detained at Stewart Detention Center (SDC) in Lumpkin to a scheme of forced labor. Detained people are deprived of sufficient access to basic necessities like food, clothing, personal hygiene products and phone calls to loved ones, and are threatened with solitary confinement and other punishments for refusing to work. The lawsuit describes how this situation violates federal anti-trafficking laws and unjustly enriches CoreCivic.

CoreCivic’s forced labor scheme creates a lucrative profit scenario for the company: Detained people are forced to purchase basic necessities from the company’s commissary, and the primary way to fund these purchases is by participating in the work program. They are responsible for tasks such as cooking and cleaning – tasks CoreCivic would otherwise have had to hire and pay outside employees to perform.

CoreCivic houses people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at SDC under a contract with Stewart County. Plaintiff Wilhen Hill Barrientos faced a difficult decision after arriving at the facility in 2015: The asylee from Guatemala could either work for nearly nothing or lose access to basic necessities, safety and privacy.

He was told that if he refused to work, 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, cooking meals for up to 2,000 people each day. He regularly worked eight- to nine-hour shifts, and usually received $4 to $5 per day – approximately 50 cents per hour. Since SDC did not have paid kitchen staff other than supervisors, officers usually required Barrientos to work seven days a week, even when he was sick. After he filed a grievance for being forced to work while sick, he was put in medical segregation for over a month. 

In 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia denied CoreCivic’s motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims, and in 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision that federal anti-trafficking laws apply to private ICE detention contractors. After extensive discovery, in June 2022, the plaintiffs moved to certify a class of over 32,000 workers who had participated in SDC’s work program since 2008. In March 2023, the district court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.

In October 2023 as the case was set to go to trial, a settlement was reached on behalf of Barrientos and the two other named plaintiffs in the case, Keysler Ramón Urbina Rojas and Gonzalo Bermudez Gutiérrez. The settlement agreement contains confidential information about the monetary amounts received by the plaintiffs and is not a public document.

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 SPLC represented the plaintiffs with co-counsel Project South, Perkins Coie LLP and Gwyn Newsom.