Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Wednesday announced that he is suing GEO Group, the private, multibillion dollar corporation that runs the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, a facility that detains undocumented immigrants undergoing deportation proceedings. It’s the largest such institution on the West Coast, and GEO is the second-largest private prison corporation in America.
Ferguson’s argument: GEO Group has been violating Washington state minimum wage law since it first opened the NWDC in 2005. The company pays detainees no more than one dollar a day—or, just as often, a bag of chips or candy instead of dollars—for the work they do at the center, which includes preparing and serving food, cleaning restrooms and common areas, and doing laundry. The state minimum wage is now $11 per hour.
GEO Group’s owners are “unjustly enriching themselves,” Ferguson said during a press conference Wednesday, adding that the profits they’ve made as a result likely amount to many millions. “On top of that, there are individuals in the community surrounding the Center that have lost out on work because GEO was taking advantage of essentially free labor. We believe this is the first time a state attorney general has brought claims like these.”
The NWDC has come under fire in recent months—as it also did in 2014—for living conditions that its residents and their allies have called a violation of human rights. Several detainee-led hunger strikes took place at the NWDC in April, June, and again in August and September, to protest a litany of alleged abuses including “inedible” food, exorbitant commissary prices, inadequate access to medical care, and the $1-per-day wage for detainee labor that Ferguson is now addressing.
Immigrant rights activists have argued that local public officials tend to look the other way or blame the federal government when it comes to conditions at the center. Wednesday’s lawsuit seems to mark a change. “The people most affected by the Northwest Detention Center—those detained—have been leading the resistance against it. We are glad to see the Attorney General stepping up to join their fight,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, co-founder of NWDC Resistance, in a statement, adding that the federal government should be held accountable, too: It is the feds who set the $1-per-day minimum wage rate for detainees.
Ferguson did not make any statements about federal immigration policy on Wednesday, except to note that the contract GEO Group has with Immigration & Customs Enforcement should require that it comply with state laws, too. Washington, Ferguson said, has some of the strongest minimum wage laws in the nation, broadly written to incorporate all workers, with only a handful of exceptions. Among those are inmates at government-run corrections facilities, like prisons or jails.
But “these detainees are part of civil immigration proceedings,” Ferguson said. “They are not in jail. They are held in a private facility run by an out-of-state, for-profit corporation. … There is no exemption [to state minimum wage law] for private, for-profit detention facilities. Let’s be honest about what’s going on. GEO has a captive population of vulnerable individuals who cannot easily advocate for themselves. This corporation is exploiting those workers for their own profits.”
Ferguson said that because of Washington’s broad minimum wage protections, he felt confident in the outcome of the suit. If the state prevails, he expects that not only would GEO Group need to comply with state law going forward, but also “give up the profits it made by underpaying its workers over these many years.” That money, he said, would be placed in a fund to support the needs of both detainees and job-seekers near the facility who may have missed out on work opportunities because of GEO’s practices.
Ferguson added that the suit was influenced in part by recent detainee-led hunger strikes, explaining that his team of civil rights lawyers have been conducting their investigation in earnest over the past few months, speaking with detainees, advocates, and community members about their experiences. He said his office has been fielding complaints about the NWDC for several years, though—at least since he created the Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit in 2015.
GEO Group has also been the defendant in a class-action lawsuit brought this spring by 60,000 immigrants held at a GEO-run facility in Colorado that alleges forced labor. Ferguson said it’s unclear at this point whether or not detainees at the NWDC were forced to work; some said they didn’t feel they could say no, while others maintained that the work is clearly voluntary. As a result, the Colorado suit is different from the Washington suit, Ferguson said. He did describe some of what detainees told his investigators, though, including that sometimes guards would ask them to work on a special project, later than the planned end of a shift, and they were not compensated for that extra time. Detainees also told investigators that sometimes GEO did not provide the appropriate gear required for certain jobs, causing them physical pain.
Ferguson was flanked Wednesday by Northwest Immigrant Rights Project executive director Jorge Barón, who said his organization was wholly in support of the suit, as it has “long been troubled by the conditions [at the facility], and really, that this facility exists in the first place.” Barón lauded the courage of hunger strikers at the NWDC who have long been advocating for themselves. “I’m glad that our state is stepping up,” he said, to say “all residents, all the people who are here in Washington state, their rights need to be respected.”
In a statement, GEO Group denied the allegations of the lawsuit, saying that its policies comply with federal law.
“GEO strongly refutes the baseless and meritless allegations made in this lawsuit, and we intend to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” the statement reads. “The volunteer work program at all federal immigration facilities as well as the minimum wage rates and standards associated with the program are set exclusively by the Federal government under mandated performance-based national detention standards, which were promulgated by the Obama Administration in 2011. All ICE facilities operated by GEO, including the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments that meet the non-penal, non-punitive needs of individuals in the care and custody of federal immigration authorities pursuant to the Federal government’s national standards.”
The company did not immediately acknowledge Washington state law, however; a court will have to decide which takes precedence. Ferguson emphasized this multiple times on Wednesday.
“What is happening at the detention facility is not right; folks are paid a dollar a day for doing hard work,” he said. “It is our obligation to make sure that these laws adopted by our state legislature and reinforced by the people of our state … are enforced. Right now, GEO is not doing that.”