'Just a Dollar a Day': For-Profit Prison Ordered to Pay Detainees $23M for Wage Theft

Private prison company GEO Group will pay out over $23 million as a part of a lawsuit over its practice of underpaying detained volunteer workers in Washington state, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement.

On Friday, a federal jury ruled the prison company had to shell out $17.3 million in back wages to the more than 10,000 detainees for violating Washington minimum wage laws by paying them just $1 for a day's work.

GEO Group was ordered to pay out an additional $5.9 million to the state after U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan ruled the detainment center had, since at least 2005, unfairly enriched itself by underpaying workers who propped up the facility by completing vital tasks such as cooking and cleaning.

"This is a landmark victory for workers' rights and basic human dignity," Ferguson said in the statement.

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The detainees performed "essential tasks" for the GEO's Washington prisons. Here, inmates tend to landscaping at Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility in Santee, California, on April 22, 2020. Photo by SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Ferguson, a Democrat, filed a suit against GEO Group in 2017, arguing the company "unjustly" profited by hiring the low-paid detainees through its Voluntary Work Program instead of hiring local workers. Because these workers—many of them immigrants awaiting decisions on their immigration court cases—performed "essential tasks" and were underpaid, Ferguson said the company violated labor laws.

Detainees at Tacoma's Northwest ICE Processing Center did laundry, prepared food, served food and cleaned the facility. More specifically, the attorney general's office wrote that they scrubbed showers and toilets, cleaned the walk-in oven and waxed the floors in the middle of the night—"virtually all non-security functions," the office said.

In conjunction with Ferguson's suit, private attorneys filed a separate, class-action lawsuit on behalf of the thousands of detainees seeking back pay. The judge consolidated the cases and fielded off multiple requests from GEO to have the suits dismissed.

GEO's legal team argued that the lawsuits were a politically-motivated move against the private prison business, as the state had known about the program prior to 2017 when attention was brought toward the private prison business amid the policies of the Trump administration.

Furthermore, they argued that the detainees were not employees under state law and said that it would be discriminatory for the state to make GEO pay them as so. Under state law, inmates who work at "state, county, or municipal" detention faculties are not entitled to minimum wage. Because GEO is a private, for-profit facility, the court agreed that GEO was not protected under this law.