Thursday, December 2, 2021

The company stopped the work program instead of increasing the salary of the prisoners

SEATTLE (NWN) — Brazil’s Jose Soares has been locked in one of the largest immigration detention centers in the United States for the past two years, spending most of his time cleaning bathrooms and buffing floors at $1 a day .

But last week, a federal jury ruled that Soares and other detainees who cook, clean, wash and shave hair in for-profit lockups in Tacoma were entitled to Washington’s minimum wage, $13.69 an hour. . The multi-billion dollar company that owns the prison was ordered to pay more than $23 million in back pay and unjust profits to current and former detainees and the state of Washington.

The guard, Soares said, then delivered a message: No more cleaning.

Instead of paying the detainees minimum wage, the Florida-based GEO Group appealed and suspended the voluntary work program.

Neither the company nor US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which contracts it to hold detainees, will answer questions from the Associated Press this week about the suspension.

Soares, two other detainees and activists who oversee the facility south of Seattle, told the NWN that the sanitation work they used to do is no longer being done regularly.

“It was really gross — nobody cleaned anything up,” Ivan Sanchez, a 34-year-old prisoner from Jalisco, Mexico, said in a phone interview from the prison. “We pick up after ourselves, but no one sweeps or mops. The guards were saying that it is not their job to clean the toilets. … because of this there was a lot of animosity between the prisoners and the officers.”

Furthermore, he said, not being able to work makes it difficult for detainees to buy additional food at the center’s commissariat, which they see as supplementary insufficient food provided by the GEO.

While detainees await potential payments, “there are so many people out here that that dollar makes a difference,” Soares said. While he has relatives outside who provide him with money to spend at the commissary, he said, he would use his earnings every week to buy five or six ramen noodle packages for other detainees.

The detention center – officially called the Northwest ICE Processing Center – can hold 1,575 detainees, although the population has greatly shrunk during the pandemic and numbered around 400 last month. There the detainees are not being punished for any crime, but are held in civilian custody while the government settles their immigration status or prepares to deport them.

In 2017 two lawsuits were filed over detainees’ wages – one by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, and one by lawyers for detainees. He accused the GEO of profiteering on the backs of captive workers.

The cases were consolidated for trial, and a US District Court jury ruled on October 27 that the detainees were entitled to minimum wage. It ordered GEO to pay $17.3 million in back pay dating to more than 10,000 current and former detainees as of 2014. Judge Robert Bryan ruled further this week that the company had unjustly enriched itself and must pay $5.9 million to Washington State.

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The GEO on Thursday asked the judge to adjourn pending decisions of appeal. The corporation wrote that it had enough money “to make the decisions twenty times more than what they paid for”, but said it disagreed with the decisions.

In a news release, the company pointed to a March decision against detainees at a New Mexico facility owned by Corsivic, the country’s other main private immigration detention contractor. GEO and CoreCivic own and operate multiple lockups across the country.

A federal appeals court panel in that case found that the detainees were not entitled to minimum wage because they were “not in an employer-employee relationship but in a habeas-captive relationship.”

Washington’s minimum wage law states that residents of state, county and municipal detention facilities are not entitled to minimum wage, but the law makes no such exception for private, for-profit prisons.

ICE requires private immigration detention contractors to offer voluntary work programs to ease detainees’ laziness, with a set wage of “at least” $1 per day. However, companies are also required to comply with other federal, state and local laws — including Washington’s Minimum Wage Act, argued the attorney general and detainees’ attorneys.

On October 29, GEO received permission from ICE to suspend the work program, court documents show.

Some detainees were given a GEO memo that day stating that they could no longer do the work they used to do; The memo falsely stated that ICE had suspended the work program, according to an image provided to the NWN.

The three detainees the NWN interviewed, who are all in the same unit, said they had not seen the memo. Two said they had seen more guards than usual working in the kitchen to prepare food, and one, Victor Fonseca, 40, of Venezuela, said he had at one point seen a guard wiping the floor in the shower.

44-year-old Soares, from the state of Goiás in central Brazil, worked from 12 o’clock in the night to 4 in the morning cleaning and mopping the floor. He said that till last Saturday, the floors and bathrooms in his unit, which then housed 32 people, were so dirty that he asked for permission to clean them despite the suspension of the work schedule.

The guards agreed, and they spent four hours, unpaid, cleaning up, Soares said. No one else was allowed to help him.

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