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Wilhen Hill Barrientos, et al., v. CoreCivic, Inc.

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.

Refusing to work meant that he would not have enough money to pay for food or costly phone calls to his family; that he would likely be moved from a two-person prison cell to an open dorm with few bathrooms, round-the-clock lighting and frequent fights; or that he would be placed into solitary confinement.

Barrientos ultimately worked in the kitchen, cooking meals for up to 2,000 people each day. He received at most $4 to $5 per day for six to eight hours of work – 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. Barrientos was sent to medical segregation for two months after he filed a grievance for being forced to work while sick.

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.

The SPLC serves as counsel with Project South and Perkins Coie LLP.