Illegal immigrants incarcerated in San Diego are suing prison contractor CoreCivic, claiming the company is exploiting their labor and may be violating human trafficking laws.
In a class action suit filed Wednesday, plaintiffs have claimed they’re being paid as little as $1.50 per day at Otay Mesa Detention Center. Working as kitchen staff, janitors, and barbers, they’re awarded sparse wages and sometimes not compensated at all.
According to The San Diego Tribune, the suit takes accusations a step further, too. Inmates claim they’re regularly denied the necessities of everyday life. Soap, for instance, is apparently a luxury at Otay Mesa, made available only through purchase at the commissary.
Unlike many other correctional facilities in the United States, work isn’t treated as a privilege or choice. Inmates say that facility staff regularly threatened and punished those who weren’t willing to labor away for low wages, putting them in solitary confinement and refusing visitation rights.
“Our complaint alleges CoreCivic illegally enriches itself on the back of a captive workforce,” said Korey Nelson, a partner at Burns Charest.
Otay Mesa, writes the Tribune, holds detainees in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – inmates awaiting trials for immigration offenses.
The complaint, according to the Tribune, argues that even if the labor system is similar to that found in prisons, there’s a legal difference between incarceration for convicted criminals and immigration offenders.
ICE only has the authority to arrest and hold individuals regarded either as dangerous to society or unlikely to show up for court hearings. Many inmates might not have prior criminal histories or have fully worked their way through the legal system.
“They’re supposed to treat you better than jail,” said San Diego civil rights attorney Chris Morris. “If it’s in any level a punishment, that’s a problem.”
ICE officials, when pressed for comment, didn’t seem keen to mince words. Tony Cerone, an ICE union chapter adviser who spoke to the Tribune, said all work at Otay Mesa is voluntary.
“Detainees are required to keep their quarters and the common area clean,” he said. “They don’t get maid service.”
And according to Cerone, some of the voluntary work positions are so popular that they have waiting lists.
“Kitchen workers get extra food to consume and can make special concoctions while working,” explained Cerone. “Many detainees enjoy getting out of the units and getting the perks that go along with it.”
Yet the plaintiffs and the suit disagree, saying, “The labor is not voluntary in any meaningful sense.”
They say that CoreCivic is making an “exponentially higher” profit by exploiting the efforts of captive workers, who’ve little freedom to choose their responsibilities.
To make matters worse – if the plaintiffs’ allegations are proven—the five individuals named in the complaint are all asylum-seekers, meaning they’d be afraid of falling victim to violence if they were deported to their home countries. Two of the men – and a father and step-son pair from El Salvador – said they were forced to waive worker’s compensation rights before beginning work in the kitchen.
After badly burning his arm on a kitchen stove, the father was denied any form of compensation and compelled to return to the kitchen just a day later.
The three other plaintiffs are women, one of whom claims she miscarried in the custody of border security officials.