In their closing arguments, attorneys for The GEO Group alleged that Washington does not even pay its own prisoners minimum wage–and therefore should not expect a private operator to do the same.
A federal jury is set to decide whether the GEO Group, among the largest private prison contractors in the United States, must pay immigrant detainees minimum wage rather than a dollar per day.
According to The Associated Press, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the Florida-based GEO Group in 2017. In his complaint, Ferguson alleged that the company has illegally profited by paying detained immigrants in its Tacoma, Washington, facility sub-par wages for custodial work and kitchen chores.
The A.P. notes that another, separate lawsuit was filed on behalf of detainees later the same year, requesting that a court order GEO to give detainees back-pay.
While GEO repeatedly requested that the lawsuit be dismissed, Tacoma-based U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan allowed each case to move forward.
Speaking in a virtual hearing on Tuesday, Washington Assistant Attorney General Andrea Brenneke told the jury that GEO has the financial resources to pay its inmate-workers more money while still grossing millions.
“What GEO is doing to exploit captive detainees at the Northwest detention center is for real—and at a massive scale,” Brenneke said as part of her closing argument. “GEO could easily pay detainee workers the minimum wage and still make millions of dollars in profits from the facility each year.”
However, GEO has contended that its detainees should not be considered employees. Furthermore, the company claims that it would be discriminatory for Washington to compel it to pay detainees the federal minimum wage when the state does not offer the same benefit to prisoners and persons held in other facilities.
In her own closing statement, GEO counsel Joan Mell said that Washington and labor advocates are using litigation to sabotage the immigration detention system.
Mell observed that GEO has operated its Northwest center for over a decade—but that neither the attorney general nor any other public entity demanded the company pay immigrants minimum wage until Ferguson filed a series of lawsuits against the Trump administration, beginning in 2017.
“If the plaintiffs can prove the Minimum Wage Act is—quote—applicable […] then they can reform immigration detention without ever having to go to Congress,” Mell argued. “They’re taking a shortcut via the courthouse to get what they want.”
The Associated Press notes that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requires that GEO and other private prison operators run “voluntary work program[s]” for immigrant detainees. The agency mandates that detainees be paid at least $1 per day to perform an assortment of tasks and chores, from cleaning bathrooms to serving food and cutting hair.
While GEO says that detainees only work, on average, one to two hours per day, the company also said it would have to hire dozens of outside workers from surrounding communities if immigrants were unable or unwilling.
Nevertheless, in his original lawsuit, Ferguson asserted that a multi-billion dollar company should not be allowed to exploit detainees for profit.
“A multi-billion dollar corporation is trying to get away with paying its workers $1 per day,” Ferguson said in a 2017 press release. “That shouldn’t happen in America, and I will not tolerate it happening in Washington. For-profit companies cannot exploit Washington workers.”