Current and former detainees, including illegal immigrants, are suing the country’s second largest private prison company, alleging the for-profit institution forced them to work for extremely low wages or nothing at all.
A federal judge ruled Monday that inmates at a detention center in Colorado can participate in a class-action lawsuit against the private corrections company, GEO group. The prison complex holds illegal immigrants slated for deportation.
“This is the first lawsuit of its kind in the history of the United States,” Andrew Free, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys told The Daily Beast. “This is the first time that a private prison company has ever been accused of forced labor, and this is the first time that a judge has ever found that the claims can go forward under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the bans in federal law on forced labor.”
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Judge John Kane assigned the attorneys to legally represent all detainees held at the Aurora, Colo. center since Oct. 22, 2004, which could equal nearly 60,000 people, according to The Daily Beast.
Illegal immigrant detainees said if they refused to work, they would be threatened with solitary confinement.
“GEO’s Aurora facility is being run on the backs of detainees, with GEO’s profits flowing from abusing this cheap detainee labor,” Alexander Hood told The Daily Beast.
But GEO Group refutes these accusations, saying they comply with the law.
“The volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the Federal government,” said Pablo Paez, a spokesperson for the company, according to The Daily Beast. “Our facilities, including the Aurora, Colo. Facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments pursuant to the Federal Government’s national standards.”
The judge’s decision to permit the lawsuit could have implications for the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement strategy. Approximately 65 percent of Department of Homeland Security detainees were held in privately run facilities, according to USA Today. And if more lawsuits in the future are authorized based on precedent, then immigrant detention could potentially require more funding, whether privately or publicly.
GEO Group has a history with President Donald Trump, having donated $250,000 for his inauguration ceremony, according to USA Today.