Private Prison Suspends Work Program, Rather Than Pay Detainees Minimum Wage

A Washington state private prison decided to suspend its Voluntary Work Program after a court ruled that the detention center had to pay its workers the $13.69 state minimum wage instead of the $1-a-day pay rate it had been offering for years, the Associated Press reports.

The operator of the prison involved in the suit, Florida-based GEO Group, used its immigrant detainees to perform services at its Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, Washington, that State Attorney General Bob Ferguson argued in his winning case were "necessary to keep the facility operational." These tasks included doing laundry, preparing food and cleaning the facility.

Because the detainees were being held at a private, for-profit facility, the court said that GEO Group was not entitled to the protection under state law that allows "state, county, or municipal" detention faculties to pay its voluntary workers below the minimum wage.

Ferguson called this ruling a "a landmark victory for workers' rights and basic human dignity." However, now that the program has been suspended and detainees are no longer able to perform these tasks, living conditions in the prison have started to suffer.

Activists Protest Housing Of Migrants At Detention
Instead of paying detainees minimum wage th GEO Group has suspended its Voluntary Work Program at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, Washington. Above, Alessandra Mondolfi joins with other activists and protesters outside the headquarters of the private prison company Geo Group on August 12, 2019 in Boca Raton, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Brazilian Jose Soares has been incarcerated in the center for the past two years, the AP reports. During this time, he earned the $1 wage cleaning bathrooms and buffing floors. Soares, two other detainees and activists who keep an eye on the facility told the AP that the jobs once performed by Soares and others are no longer being done.

"It got really gross—nobody cleaned anything," Ivan Sanchez, a 34-year-old detainee from Jalisco, Mexico, told the AP in a phone interview from the center. "We pick up after ourselves, but nobody sweeps or mops. The guards were saying it wasn't their job to clean the toilets.… It caused a lot of animosity between the detainees and the officers because of that."

Detainees told the AP that losing their $1 wages has made it harder for them to purchas food at the center's commissary. They're now hungrier than before because they say they can no longer afford to supplement the, what they consider to be, inadequate meals provided by GEO.

For some of the detainees, however, relief could soon be on the way. The court has ruled that the prison must pay out $17.3 million in back wages to the more than 10,000 individuals detained at the center.

Newsweek contacted GEO for comment but did not hear back in time for publication.