A federal jury in Washington state found that the manager of the profit center in Tacoma owed $ 17.3 million in arrears to immigrant detainees who were denied a minimum wage for the work they performed there.
The jury reached that conclusion on Friday, two days after finding it GEO Group violated Washington’s minimum wage laws by paying detained workers $ 1 a day, according to Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who sued the company in 2017.
“This multibillion-dollar corporation has illegally exploited the people it detained to fill its own pockets,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Today’s victory sends a clear message: Washington will not tolerate wealthy corporations violating people’s rights.”
Adam Berger, a lawyer representing current and former detainees in a class action lawsuit against GEO, said in a Sunday interview that he was “proud to represent these individuals and grateful to the jury for seeing that justice was served in this case. “
The Florida – based GEO Group reported more than $ 2 billion in revenue, did not immediately respond to messages requesting comment on Sunday. The company argued in court files that Washington pays inmates in its correctional facilities lower than the state minimum wage, which is now $ 13.69 per hour, and that detainees are not employed under state law.
The case, heard in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington, focused on detainees who were mostly from Mexico and Central America and had worked at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma since 2014.
Mr Berger said more than 10,000 current and former detainees would be entitled to pay the arrears, with some expected to receive less than $ 20 and others more than $ 30,000. The average prize will be about $ 1,700, he said.
Mr Berger said some former detainees who have returned to their homelands may not receive the money if it is difficult to find them. “But we will work hard to try to find them or to get the word out so they can get in touch with us,” he said.
Berger said detainees at the center, formerly known as the Northwest Detention Center, often did housework. They cleaned showers and toilets, wiped the floors, and sometimes cooked more than 4,000 meals a day for fellow detainees. The company did not employ barbers, Mr Berger said, so detainees also cut their hair.
Goodluck Nwauzor, a former detainee and plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement that he worked for $ 1 a day and cleaned showers in a residential unit he shared with about 60 other men.
After testifying during the trial and hearing the jury’s decision, Mr Nwauzor, who was born in Nigeria and was granted asylum in 2017, said his heart was “full of joy”.
This week, U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan according to Mr Ferguson, it should determine how much the GEO group will have to pay to the state for unjust enrichment through its underpaid work of detainees.
It was unclear whether the company would appeal the verdict, but Mr Berger said he “would not be surprised” if he did.
The outcome could have consequences for other detention centers that use migrants for work, making their treatment as “prisoners and criminals” unfair, he said. Erin Hatton, Professor of Sociology and Prison Work at New York State University in Buffalo.
“They can’t be treated as such, and that’s what the law says,” she said. “And I think that sends a strong legal message, but it also sends a strong cultural message.”
While the facilities do not force them to work, said Dr. Hatton, many detainees don’t see a choice because they need money to call friends and family, use the internet, pay for stamps, or buy snacks.
“To say they’re not forced isn’t quite true – it just means they’re not forced with a gun,” she said. “They are given a choice, but the choice is that they may not be in communication with their family.”
Detainees in downtown Tacoma were detained while their immigrant status was being regulated, Mr Berger said. Most have never been convicted of a crime, and of those who have, the sentence has already been served, Mr Berger said.
Mr Berger said immigrant detainees “deserve fair pay for the work they do to maintain the facilities.”