A private prison company was ordered to pay more than $ 23 million for lawsuits accusing it of executing its for-profit immigration ban in Washington state on inmates’ backs.
US District Judge Robert Bryan on Tuesday instructed GEO Group to transfer a profit of $ 5.9 million to Washington State. Bryan said that’s how much the company had unjustly enriched itself since 2005 by paying detainees who volunteered for jobs like cooking and cleaning as little as $ 1 a day instead of the state minimum wage.
The verdict came just days after a jury ordered the company on Friday to pay more than 10,000 inmates and former inmates at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma $ 17.3 million in arrears.
“This is a milestone for workers’ rights and basic human dignity,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson in a written statement.
GEO is expected to appeal. The company, which did not return emails from The Associated Press asking for comment, has received permission from U.S. Immigration and Customs to suspend inmates’ work program pending an appeal, court documents show.
Ferguson, a Democrat, sued Florida-based GEO Group in 2017, saying the company wrongly benefited from running the prison’s volunteering program. Otherwise, local workers would have been hired to do whatever work was done to the inmates, he said.
Private lawyers also filed a separate lawsuit on behalf of the prisoners earlier that year to seek back payment. The judge, who denied GEO’s multiple attempts to dismiss the lawsuits, consolidated the cases for trial.
The first trial ended in June with a deadlocked jury. The second trial ended last week with the jury ruling that GEO should have paid the state minimum wage – now $ 13.69 an hour – and the back payment awarded.
GEO’s attorneys believed that the lawsuits were a politically motivated attack on the company. Washington state had long known about the work program for prisoners, but did not complain until 2017 – amid an uproar over then-President Donald Trump’s immigration policy.
The company claimed the detainees were not employees under the Washington Minimum Wage Act. Even if that were the case, the company said, it would be unlawfully discriminatory for Washington to require GEO to pay the minimum wage if the state does not pay the minimum wage to inmates who work in its own prisons or other detention centers.
The definition of “employee” in the Washington Minimum Wage Act is broad – it includes anyone who is permitted to work by an employer, regardless of immigration or legal work status. The law states that residents of a “state, county or municipal” detention center are not entitled to a minimum wage for the work they do.
The GEO remand prison does not comply with this exemption, as it is a private, profit-oriented facility and not a “state, county or municipal” facility, argued prosecutors and the prisoners.
The Northwest Detention Center houses people who are in custody while the federal government tries to deport them or verify their immigration status. It can hold up to 1,575 inmates, making it one of the largest immigration prisons in the country, although the population was drastically reduced during the pandemic.
During the first trial, GEO admitted that it could pay inmates more if it wanted to. In 2018, the company made $ 18.6 million in profits from the facility; It would have cost $ 3.4 million to pay the inmates the minimum wage.
Washington appears to be the only state suing a private incarceration contractor for failing to pay immigrant detainees the minimum wage. But similar lawsuits have been filed on behalf of immigration detainees in other states, including New Mexico, Colorado, and California, to force GEO and another large private detention facility, CoreCivic, to pay detainees the minimum wage.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit filed by former inmates at CoreCivic’s Cibola Detention Center in New Mexico – a decision that was upheld by a federal appeals court in March.
“People in custody – like the complainant – are not in an employer-employee relationship, but in an inmate-inmate relationship,” wrote the panel.
This story was originally published November 2, 2021 5:47 pm.