Take the profit out of immigration jails, say WA congress members

A detainee in solitary at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. KUOW PHOTO/MEGAN FARMER

Immigration detention is a booming business in the U.S., mostly run by private, for-profit contractors. A new bill in Congress aims to phase out these private facilities, including the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

“One thing I am 100 percent confident of is that there is a cheaper, more humane way to treat the undocumented population in our country,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington).

On Tuesday, Smith and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) plan to introduce legislation that calls for an overhaul of the immigration detention system.

Currently, 90 percent of federal detention is outsourced to private contractors or local jails and the regulations vary from place to place.

“There’s no accountability,” Jayapal said. “There’s no transparency. And people are literally making a profit off of people being put into detention. I think it’s important for the public to understand that it’s costing them a lot of money when there are a lot of alternatives.”

The legislation calls for the Department of Homeland Security to take over ownership and operation of all detention facilities within three years.

The bill, called the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, would also create higher standards at detention centers – standards for medical care, legal services, and basic living conditions, among other things.

A recent series of detainee hunger strikes have called attention to these issues at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma and at other immigration jails around the country.

More than 350,000 people were held in detention last year, and the 2018 federal budget projects a 70 percent increase.

“The bottom line concern is that detention facilities are not regulated by the federal government in the same way that federal prisons are,” Smith said.

Former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelley defended the standards while testifying to Congress in May.

“ICE detention standards are well beyond the standards that even the Federal Bureau of Prisons has in terms of prisoner….housing and care,” Kelly said.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson declined to comment on pending legislation, but information on the agency’s website describes an ongoing rollout of new standards to all of its facilities. However, some facilities are still using standards that have not been updated since 2000.

In 2016, a Homeland Security advisory subcommittee reviewed the use of private immigration detention facilities and evaluated whether this practice should be eliminated. The report compared private facilities to those run by ICE and found private facilities are cheaper to run and necessary to meet capacity demands. However, the committee ultimately recommended a shift away from these for-profit jails.

According to the report, the average cost of a day in an ICE-run facility is $184.35 per person versus $144.23 in a privately-contracted detention facility.

Yet Jayapal said the proposed legislation would ultimately lead to cost savings, since it carves out limits on who can be detained and for how long. For example, the bill would create a category of “vulnerable persons,” including pregnant women and primary caregivers, who could qualify for alternative community supervision programs instead of detention.

Smith said he’s not naïve. He knows how Congress works. And he knows it’s a longshot to even get a hearing on this bill, given the Trump Administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

“It’s unlikely, but we’re going to put it in their face,” Smith said. “We’re going to keep pushing this issue because we have people here in this country who are being treated inhumanely.”

AG Ferguson sues operator of the Northwest Detention Center for wage violations

Sept. 20, 2017

AG Ferguson sues operator of the Northwest Detention Center for wage violations
Multi-billion dollar company pays detainees in snacks or $1 per day for labor

TACOMA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced a lawsuit against The GEO Group, Inc. (GEO), the second-largest private prison provider in the country, for not paying its workers the minimum wage, netting the company millions in ill-gotten profits. The state’s lawsuit asks the court to order the company to give up these profits.

GEO uses immigration detainee labor to perform virtually all non-security functions at Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), the only private detention facility in the state. Since at least 2005, GEO has paid thousands of detainee workers $1 per day or, in some instances, snacks and extra food for labor that is necessary to keep NWDC operational. Washington’s minimum wage is $11 per hour.

“A multi-billion dollar corporation is trying to get away with paying its workers $1 per day,” Ferguson said. “That shouldn’t happen in America, and I will not tolerate it happening in Washington. For-profit companies cannot exploit Washington workers.”

“The bottom line is that a fair wage should be paid for a day of work,” said Joel Sacks, director of the state Department of Labor and Industries, which regulates wage standards in Washington state.

The lawsuit, filed today in Pierce County Superior Court, is believed to be the first of its kind brought by a state Attorney General. The state has two claims against GEO.

First, the lawsuit accuses GEO of violating Washington’s minimum wage laws. These laws are broadly written and meant to protect as many workers as possible. RCW 49.46.010(k) exempts the following from protections from Washington’s minimum wage laws: “Any resident, inmate, or patient of a state, county, or municipal correctional, detention, treatment or rehabilitative institution.”

There are no exceptions for private, for-profit facilities like NWDC. In contrast with a jail or prison, which house people involved in the criminal justice system and are operated by state or local governments, detainees at NWDC are held in a private, for-profit facility pending civil immigration proceedings.

Second, Ferguson also argues that GEO unjustly enriched itself, meaning it profited by its illegal actions exploiting its workers.

NWDC has the capacity to house up to 1,575 immigrant detainees. Detainees perform most of the work necessary to run the facility except guarding detainees. This includes preparing and serving food, running the laundry services, performing facility maintenance, and cleaning common areas and restrooms. Detainees report that the general practice is that guards ask for detainee “volunteers” for work. If no one volunteers for certain work, guards will sometimes pick detainees to perform the work.

AGO investigators heard many stories from detainees about their concerns regarding work at NWDC. Detainees described working through the night buffing floors and painting walls in exchange for chips and candy. Detainees told investigators that if an officer asks a detainee to work on a special project later than the planned end of the shift, detainees are allowed to stop working but may not receive any pay for their work.

Detainees also reported that for some work, GEO does not provide appropriate working gear and that has caused detainees physical pain and discomfort. Detainees’ concerns about being paid $1 per day or being paid in snack food is one of several concerns that detainees raised during multiple hunger strikes in the past year.

Northwest Detention Center and GEO Group
Located on Tacoma’s Tideflats, Northwest Detention Center is the fourth-largest immigration detention center in the country. People are held at the facility while undergoing immigration proceedings, potentially facing deportation.

GEO has operated the facility for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since 2005. The Florida-based company has been in partnership with ICE since the 1980s, and in 2015, ICE renewed GEO’s contract for NWDC through 2025. At the time the contract was renewed, GEO projected NWDC would bring in $57 million in revenue every year at full capacity.

NWDC is one of 141 correctional and detention facilities operated by the company, which saw revenues exceeding $2 billion in 2016.

GEO has faced a variety of lawsuits, including a class action suit by current and former detainees at a Colorado facility alleging forced labor.

NWDC has faced its own controversies, including multiple hunger strikes by detainees over living conditions, access to medical care, and other problems at the facility. As many as 750 detainees reportedly participated in one hunger strike earlier this year.

Relief and next steps
Ferguson’s lawsuit asks the court to order GEO to comply with Washington’s minimum wage laws. The lawsuit also asks the court to order GEO to pay the state its costs and fees from bringing the lawsuit, and to give up the profits it made by underpaying its employees over many years. The exact amount will be determined as the lawsuit progresses, but is expected to be in the millions.

If the court grants this request, the Attorney General’s Office will likely ask the court to place any monetary award into a constructive trust or cy pres fund. This fund would be dedicated to supporting people detained in NWDC, as well as job seekers in the community surrounding the detention center who may have lost employment opportunities because of GEO’s practices.

The defendant will have 20 days from the date they are served to respond to the state’s complaint.

Assistant Attorneys General La Rond Baker and Marsha Chien are leading the case for the Attorney General’s Office.

Ending DACA is wrong but inaction by our Congress would be even worse

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program freed hundreds of thousands of young people from the fear of being deported to countries which many of them don’t remember and where they would be in danger. It also gave them the ability to work legally and get an education. I have known dozens of these young people. They all shared one characteristic – hope. They believed they were in a country that cared about them and that was willing to take steps to give them the opportunity to become contributing members. And they did. They went to school, got jobs and started careers. They engaged in their communities. They were realizing the term that has been given to them – Dreamers. Over the last four years KIAC’s legal program has helped many young people realize this dream, and we’ve help them renew their status so they could continue this positive journey.

Now the Administration has decided to exclude Dreamers in our country and has ended the DACA program. This action will have a devastating effect on the Dreamers, their families, friends, schools, and employers. While the authority exists to undo a previous president’s executive order, he could also let it continue. Instead he adds to the fear in the immigrant community by targeting hundreds of thousands of young people for deportation.

We now ask the Congress to undo this heartless act and pass legislation that will restore protection to the Dreamers and provide a way for them to become full citizens of the United States instead of living in a political limbo. There are several bills in congress addressing this.

We at the Kitsap Immigrant Assistance Center stand with our immigrant sisters and brothers and in this trying time we will provide support to the dozens of Dreamers in our community to help them through this struggle.

We encourage you to contact your congressional representatives: Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell and Derek Kilmer.  Encourage them to support legislation that will undo this heartless political act.

Here are their contact links:
Senator Maria Cantwell: https://www.cantwell.senate.gov/contact/email/form

Senator Patty Murray: https://www.murray.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contactme

Congressman Derek Kilmer: https://kilmer.house.gov/contact/email-me

Ray Garrido
KIAC Legal Services Director

Serving our sisters and brothers in the immigrant community