News Law and Policy

Lawsuit Challenging Private Prison Company’s ‘Forced Labor’ Program Can Proceed

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Detained immigrants in Georgia say they are made to clean floors for a dollar a day—or else sleep in an overcrowded, unsanitary open dormitory.

A lawsuit alleging a private prison company in Georgia is unlawfully forcing detained immigrants to work for as little as $1 a day or face inhumane living conditions can proceed, a federal court ruled last week.

Stewart Detention Center is an immigration detention facility in Stewart County, Georgia, operated by the private prison company CoreCivic. Stewart, with nearly 2,000 beds, is one of the largest immigration detention centers in the United States. CoreCivic is under contract with Stewart County, Georgia, to house people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

CoreCivic operates an exploitative and abusive “Dollar-a-Day” program at Stewart from which the company profits handsomely, according to the lawsuit. The program described in court documents works like this: Detained immigrants are forced to purchase basic necessities from CoreCivic’s commissary, and the primary way to fund their purchases is to participate in the work program that is necessary for the operation of the facility. These jobs include providing basic functions at the facility like cooking and cleaning, work for which CoreCivic would otherwise have to hire and pay outside workers. Attorneys for the plaintiffs describe this as a “deprivation scheme” in which CoreCivic forces detainees to work through threats of physical violence, solitary confinement, and deprivation of basic necessities.

As detailed in court documents, Stewart first places detainees in open dormitories. These open dormitories house 66 detainees in bunk beds with no privacy. Each dormitory has one shared bathroom with several sinks and toilets and showers that often lack temperature controls. These open dormitories, which detainees refer to as the “Chicken Coop” because of the unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, breed conflict and violence. The only way to move from the “Chicken Coop” to other housing in Stewart is to participate in the detention facility’s work program.

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The plaintiffs claim that CoreCivic does not provide detainees with basic hygiene products like toilet paper, soap, lotion, or toothpaste. Those must be purchased by detainees from the Stewart commissary. In fact, the commissary is the only place detainees can purchase hygiene products, clothes, or phone cards, and detainees must use their inmate fund accounts to make purchases.

Detainees can earn money for commissary purchases by participating in CoreCivic’s “voluntary work program.” CoreCivic assigns participants to various jobs in the facility such as scrubbing bathrooms, cleaning the medical center, preparing meals, washing detainees’ laundry, and cleaning floors, all tasks the plaintiffs say are necessary to keep Stewart operational. According to allegations in the lawsuit, CoreCivic generally pays detainees in the program between $1 and $4 per day for the work.

Detainees that participate in the work program are not housed in the “Chicken Coop.” Instead, they are provided private two-person cells, a shared common area, a bathroom shared with one other cellmate, and a shower with temperature control.

In April the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of Wilhen Barrientos, Margarito Velazquez Galicia, and Shoaib Ahmed, and other current and former Stewart detainees. The lawsuit claims the “Dollar-a-Day” program violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and Georgia law.

CoreCivic moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the trafficking statute was never intended to apply to lawfully held detainees. Last week a federal court disagreed and ruled the lawsuit could proceed against the private prison contractor.

“The court’s decision shows that CoreCivic is not above the law in the treatment of people in its care,” said Meredith Stewart, senior attorney for the SPLC, in a statement following the decision. “We will now have the opportunity to show how CoreCivic’s practice of forcing the immigrants detained at Stewart to work for nearly free by depriving them of basic necessities, and threatening solitary confinement for refusing to work, violates federal anti-trafficking laws, and leads to an unjust financial windfall for the private prison company,” Stewart said.

“This decision is a significant step on the path to hold this private prison corporation accountable for its unlawful and inhumane conduct,” Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, said in a statement. “The court has agreed with us that CoreCivic cannot continue to enrich itself off the forced labor of detained immigrants with impunity.”

Attorneys from SPLC have filed similar lawsuits challenging private prison companies’ work practices in California, Washington, Colorado, and Texas.

The decision was issued a few days before the start of what may be one of the largest prison strikes in U.S. history. On Tuesday, incarcerated people across the country launched a weeks-long strike protesting what they call “modern day slavery” in the penal system. Organizations like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee are leading the strike. which reportedly has 17 states participating. Strike organizers have released a set of 10 demands they want addressed in the criminal justice system, including fair wages for prison labor and humane housing conditions for incarcerated people. 

The nationwide prison strike is scheduled to end on September 9 on the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising. 

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