ICE should improve oversight and of detention and facility management, and enforce the standards that exist to protect the detention population.

Lawsuits in California, Washington, Colorado, and Texas are challenging private prison companies’ work practices—namely, that anyone who refuses to work is threatened with solitary confinement and the loss of access to basic necessities, including food, clothing, products for personal hygiene, and phone calls to loved ones. This is a violation of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 was established, in part, to prohibit “forced labor” defined in §1589:

Whoever knowingly provides or obtains the labor or services of a person—

(1) by threats of serious harm to, or physical restraint against, that person or another person;

(2) by means of any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause the person to believe that, if the person did not perform such labor or services, that person or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint; or

(3) by means of the abuse or threatened abuse of law or the legal process,

shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

The original versions of the bills and the multiple reauthorizations (TVPRA) have enjoyed bipartisan support for nearly two decades. In fact, hundreds of Republicans and Democrats have signed on to uphold the principles enshrined in the bill. Those principles include:

  • TVPA is meant to protect immigrant detainees from forced labor, the subminimum wages of which are necessary to procure basic necessities at the commissary and avoid hunger, undernourishment, lack of personal hygiene, and lack of contact with loved ones, among other harms;
  • TVPA is meant to allow individuals to refuse to provide labor without fear of:
    • Placement or threatened placement into solitary confinement;
    • Threat of criminal prosecution;
    • Threat to transfer to unsafe and unsanitary living quarters, where they would be deprived of privacy, safety, and sanitation; and
    • Threat to deny them access to the commissary where they could buy food, hygiene products, and phone cards, thus denying them basic necessities and isolating them from friends and family; and
  • TVPA is meant to ensure that all that all work, other than personal housekeeping, be voluntary and not required.

Yet egregious violations of these principles are allegedly occurring nationwide.

Stewart Detention Facility

One lawsuit centers around CoreCivic, Inc., (“CoreCivic”), a billion-dollar private prison corporation that owns and operates the Stewart Detention Center (“Stewart”) in Lumpkin, Georgia. There, CoreCivic operates a Voluntary Work Program (VWP). Through this program, CoreCivic uses detained immigrants—who have not committed a criminal act—to perform work that directly contributes to institutional operations.

In the course of their labor for CoreCivic, detained immigrants in the Work Program perform a wide range of work, for which CoreCivic pays between $1 and $4 per day. CoreCivic occasionally increases the wage rate it pays to kitchen workers to up to $8 per day when it needs workers to work twelve hours or more per day.

Pursuant to corporate policy, CoreCivic is required to use any profits or interest earned from the commissary towards welfare expenditures for detained immigrants. Yet its failure to meet federal standards concerning housing, food, and hygiene products is well-documented.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General (OIG), Stewart has “bathrooms that were in poor condition, including mold and peeling paint on walls, floors, and showers.” Some bathrooms at Stewart lack hot water, while some showers lack cold water. The OIG has also found that Stewart fails to provide “basic hygienic products, such as toilet paper, soap, lotion, and toothpaste . . . promptly or at all when detainees ran out of them.” Officers instruct detained immigrants to buy these necessities from the commissary when they run out.

The same report from the OIG observes that Stewart stores “spoiled, wilted, and moldy produce and other food in kitchen refrigerators, as well as food past its expiration date.” Other food safety issues, according to the federal government, include “expired frozen food, including meat, and thawing meat without labels indicating when it had begun thawing or the date by which it must be used.”

Despite its name, the VWP is not voluntary in any meaningful sense. Detained immigrants are forced to submit to CoreCivic’s labor scheme in order to buy necessities from the commissary (including food, hygiene products, and phone cards) owned and operated by CoreCivic and to avoid solitary confinement and other sanctions. The commissary is the only place at Stewart where detained immigrants can purchase necessities, including hygiene products, clothes, food, and phone cards.

It is alleged that CoreCivic detains immigrants who refuse to work, organize a work stoppage, or participate in a work stoppage with “disciplinary segregation” (i.e., solitary confinement), criminal prosecution, downgrading the detained immigrants’ housing, and/or revoking access to the commissary, among other sanctions.

CoreCivic’s overuse of disciplinary measures such as solitary confinement at Stewart is well-documented. The OIG has expressed “concerns about a lack of professionalism and inappropriate treatment by Detention Center staff, which fostered a culture of disrespect and disregard for detainees’ basic rights.” Detained immigrants have been “disciplined, including being segregated or locked down in their cells, without adequate documentation in the detainee’s file to justify the disciplinary action.” In June 2017, officials at Stewart held a detained immigrant in solitary confinement for nearly 30 days for allegedly encouraging others to participate in a work stoppage.

Detained immigrants who submit to the Work Program are often provided with more favorable living quarters, including “pods” that have private two-person cells, access to a common area, a shared bathroom with one cellmate, and a shower with temperature control. These smaller pods are in stark contrast to the open dormitories. The open dormitories house up to 66 people, in 33 bunk beds. There is no privacy. The lights in these dorms are on all day and night, requiring some detained immigrants to fold socks over their eyes in order to sleep. There is one bathroom in these dorms with three to four toilets, three to four urinals, and four sinks. This shared bathroom is often filthy, to the extent that the pod residents at times gag from the overwhelming and festering stench. The showers in the open dormitories do not have temperature control and provide only extremely hot water. The open dormitories are also the site of frequent conflict and even violence. Indeed, the detained immigrants refer to open dormitories as “El Gallinero,” or “the Chicken Coop,” for both the conditions and overcrowded living quarters.

Under these circumstances, no labor is voluntary–it is forced. CoreCivic is depriving detained immigrants of basic necessities like food, toothpaste, toilet paper, and soap  and contact with loved ones so that they have to work in order to purchase those items and costly phone cards at CoreCivic’s commissary. CoreCivic then threatens detained immigrants who refuse to work with serious harm, including the deprivation of privacy and safety in open living quarters, referral for criminal prosecution, and, ultimately, the sensory and psychological deprivation of their humanity resulting from solitary confinement.

Regardless of the outcomes of the lawsuits, at a minimum, ICE should improve oversight and of detention and facility management, and enforce the standards that exist to protect the detention population, particularly given that the detainees are not criminals. Flagrant violations of TVPA—if true—cannot stand.

Image by Barbara Rosner from Pixabay