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Washington State Pays Prisoners Slave Wages While Suing Others for Doing the Same

by Ed Lyon

The GEO Group is one of the largest private prison companies in the United States. Its primary reason for existence is to generate profit by warehousing people for the states and federal government. One of GEO’s many prisons is the 1,575-bed Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. Recently renamed the Northwest Processing Center (NPC) in an effort to make the facility appear less onerous, detainees at NPC perform various jobs in the kitchen, laundry and other areas. The detention center holds federal immigrant detainees, who are paid $1.00 per day for their labor – the amount Congress has decreed reimbursable. This practice is similar to that used by Washington State at its Special Commitment Center (SCC) for civilly committed sex offenders on McNeil Island.

Regarding pay for prisoners performing work in Washington prisons, state law exempts prisoners from being paid at all, much less imposing any threshold requirements like $1.00 a day or minimum wage. Wage rates are left to prison administrators’ discretion. The state’s civil commitment system lies outside of that law and is presumably on a par of sorts with the NPC. The NPC has been paying detainee workers a $1.00 per day wage since 1999.

In 2017, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson decided to initiate a lawsuit in federal court to force The GEO Group to pay detainee workers at NPC minimum wage, despite the fact that the state does not pay minimum wage to civil detainees who perform work at SCC. The case was granted class-action status in 2018. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.20].

As of August 23, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan had been ruling in favor of Ferguson’s position on some issues in the lawsuit until the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) entered the fray. The DOJ characterized the case as “an aggressive and legally unjustified effort ... to interfere with federal immigration enforcement,” while GEO’s lawyers argued Ferguson lacked standing to even bring the suit under the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause. The company reasoned that since it is a contractor for the federal government it is shielded from such litigation.

By September 2019, Judge Bryan had begun to swing toward the DOJ’s position, while acknowledging that “Judges don’t like to reverse themselves.” He then reversed himself again in a three-page order on October 9, 2019. It appears now, however, the reversal was more a matter of verbiage regarding the legal position of whether “The doctrine of intergovernmental immunity does not shield Defendant from the application” of Washington’s Minimum Wage Act.

Holding that issues under that doctrine may exist but have yet to be identified, the judge held his summary judgment order in abeyance, allowing the suit to proceed.

“It follows that the record does not support a finding that application of the Minimum Wage Act impermissibly discriminates against the Defendant, The GEO Group, Inc., and through it, the United States,” Bryan wrote.

Perhaps if Washington state practiced what it preaches, paying its own civil detainees minimum wage, it might have more traction in the case to force GEO Group to do the same for detainees at NPC. Such issues are ones of fundamental fairness. See: State of Washington v. The GEO Group, Inc., U.S.D.C. (W.D. WA), Case No. 3:17-cv-05806-RJB. 


Additional sources:,,, Seattle Times

Related legal case

State of Washington v. The GEO Group, Inc.