Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson says that GEO Group violated the state’s minimum wage law by paying Northwest Detention Center detainees a $1 a day, or in chips and candy, for work done in the for-profit prison.
Ferguson announced the lawsuit against the multi-billion dollar company at a Wednesday press conference. The state’s minimum wage is $11 an hour.
“This corporation is exploiting those workers for their own profits,” Ferguson said.
In a statement released to KIRO 7, GEO Group said Wednesday its labor practices comply with federal law, and the company would defend itself against the state’s lawsuit.
The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma is run by GEO Group, under a federal contract. The facility detains people awaiting hearings in immigration court, which take place in the same building.
While the minimum wage law has an exemption for jails, Ferguson said the exemption did not apply to the Northwest Detention Center. He argued that it is a private facility, and the detainees are awaiting hearings in immigration court, which are civil cases and not criminal cases.
The Northwest Detention Center Resistance, which has been calling attention to the issue by organizing demonstrations outside the Northwest Detention Center — and detainee hunger strikes within the center — welcomed the move.
“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 of the group Northwest Detention Center Resistance in a prepared statement.
“The federal government set the $1/day rate, and ICE continues to round up and cage people at the GEO-run facilities, and ignore GEO’s abuses,” she said.
The 1,575 bed detention center has been the site of multiple hunger strikes and numerous protests. At full occupancy, GEO estimates the Northwest Detention Center will bring in annual revenue of $57 million.
Ferguson said that the state was seeking to end the practice and for money in the amount of would have been paid if the labor had been paid at minimum wage. He said it was unknown how many detainees worked for GEO Group.
GEO Group, a private company that contracts to run 141 jails, corrections or detention facilities mostly in the United States, characterized the detainee work program as voluntary and told KIRO 7 that they are bound by — and have been following — federal law.
“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,” the statement read in part.
Information from The Seattle Globalist archives were used in this report.