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GEO Group, CoreCivic Face Class Actions Alleging Prisoner ‘Slave Labor’

by Derek Gilna

GEO Group, the Florida-based private prison behemoth, and Tennessee corporation CoreCivic, are the targets of several lawsuits alleging that “voluntary” work programs at their facilities violate state minimum-wage laws, as well as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and other labor protection statutes. These lawsuits alleged that many of those detained in these facilities are undocumented immigrants.

Washington State alleged that GEO violated its minimum wage statute, which requires pay of at least $11 an hour, and sought recovery of wages owed to people confined by the company on civil charges. Colorado and California also sued GEO for requiring prisoners to work maintenance jobs for $1 a day, whereas the company receives $160 a month for each prisoner it confines.

Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, the parent company of Prison Legal News said, “This is a testament to their own greed. Instead of hiring somebody at minimum wage to do these maintenance tasks and housekeeping jobs, they would rather enslave these prisoners.”

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, agrees, saying that although the 13th Amendment permits extracting labor at little or no pay from the criminally convicted, it does not shield private-prison operators from state minimum-wage requirements for the civilly confined. The “13th Amendment makes clear that people who haven’t been convicted of a crime can’t be forced to work, period.”

Nonetheless, 18 Republican Congressmen sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice supporting the position of the private prison groups, saying that the practice of under-paying prisoners violates no law and actually improves prisoner morale. Virtually all of the signatories to the letter have received contributions from one or more of the private prison companies.

GEO, as a private company, was forced to acknowledge these lawsuits in its 2018 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, stating that the Colorado lawsuit, which received class-action certification, “alleges that the Company was in violation of the Colorado Minimum Wages of Workers Act and the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).”

The plaintiff class claims that the company was “unjustly enriched as a result of the level of payment the detainees received for work performed at the facility …” and that all other lawsuits also similarly allege violations of state minimum wage laws.

GEO representatives strongly denied the allegations in these pending lawsuits: “The wage rates associated with this federally mandated program are stipulated under long-established guidelines set by the United States Congress.... GEO has consistently, strongly refuted the allegations made in these lawsuits, and we intend to vigorously defend our company against these baseless claims.”