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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 to clean, cook and maintain 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 SPLC filed against the private prison company, CoreCivic, Inc.

Detainees at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin who refused to work were threatened with solitary confinement and the loss of access to basic necessities, like food, clothing, personal hygiene products and phone calls to loved ones — a situation that violates federal anti-trafficking laws, according to the lawsuit.

The “Dollar-a-Day” program created a lucrative profit scenario for CoreCivic: Detained immigrants were forced to purchase basic necessities from the company’s commissary, and the primary way to fund their purchases was to participate in the work program that kept the detention center operating. The jobs included tasks such as cooking and cleaning — tasks CoreCivic would otherwise have had to hire and pay outside employees to perform.

CoreCivic housed individuals detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the detention center under a contract with Stewart County. Plaintiff Wilhen Hill Barrientos faced a difficult decision after arriving at the facility: The asylum seeker 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 costly phone calls to his family, and 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 Stewart did not have paid kitchen staff, 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. 

The SPLC filed the lawsuit with the Law Office of R. Andrew Free, Project South, and Burns Charest LLP.