For more than a decade, the only for-profit detention center operating in Washington state has taken advantage of its captive population by paying them prison-inmate wages to help operate the facility.
The GEO Group, a Florida-based private prison company, is defending itself in a lawsuit over this reprehensible practice. This month, a federal judge rightly ruled the case should proceed toward trial.
The company’s claim that it should have the same minimum-wage exemption as state prisons does not accurately address the status of the 1,575-plus detainees of GEO Group’s Northwest Detention Facility, on the Tacoma Tideflats.
The facility’s inmates are awaiting federal judgment on their immigration statuses. People in state prisons lost civil rights upon being convicted of crimes. This difference is especially significant amid the excessive cruelty of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.
In such a climate, the GEO Group’s dodge of minimum-wage laws amounts to profiteering off the federal government’s use of its services.
Ideally, the Northwest Detention Center would be shuttered and dismantled. The federal dependence on private-sector operation of immigration detention facilities and prisons needs to end. It places profit incentives on making the incarceration process as spartan as possible, and insulates from public accountability the wardens and guards entrusted with maintaining humane conditions.
In the case of the Northwest Detention Center, the GEO Group is using detainees for kitchen, laundry and other jobs to run the operation as cheaply as possible. According to state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who filed the suit over the wage practice in 2017, this has saved the Florida-based prison operator millions of dollars in Tacoma alone since the facility opened in 2005.
GEO Group’s claim the work is voluntary is impossible for the public to verify. A near-total absence of transparency shrouds the Northwest Detention Center’s daily operations. Such practices are endemic to the private-detention system, which the Obama administration belatedly attempted to wind down.
Ideally, stronger federal action should repair this aspect of the American justice and immigration systems.
That won’t benefit the center’s current detainee population. This lawsuit could at least bring an end to this exploitation of those caught in the gears of the nation’s out-of-control immigration machinery.