The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sued private prison company CoreCivic in 2018 following shocking allegations by detained immigrants that a voluntary work program at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia was anything but voluntary. Officials allegedly forced immigrants in ICE custody to work for as little as $1 a day, threatening those who complained about the forced labor with solitary confinement, in violation of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
Under a settlement agreement announced by SPLC last week, detained immigrants have won a number of vital concessions from CoreCivic, including a provision making clear that detained migrants choosing to participate in the work program can’t be forced to work and can refuse to work at any time.
“This settlement is the result of the bravery of the Plaintiffs who, after surviving horrendous conditions and treatment at Stewart, were determined to fight for change so that no other detained person would have to suffer the same experience,” said Meredith Stewart, senior supervising attorney at the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “The intentional obscuring of rights in immigrant detention allows abuse and exploitation to flourish. The settlement document is a bill of rights for detained workers at Stewart and a tool for workers to advocate for justice beyond this one facility.”
Under the proposed settlement, immigrants in the program will receive a document, which will also be available in Spanish, that states a number of their rights as workers, including the right to receive monetary compensation for their work, relevant training, necessary work and safety equipment, and respect from facility staff. “The settlement also provides additional, confidential benefits to the individual plaintiffs,” a statement said.
SPLC alleged in its 2018 lawsuit that CoreCivic, a billion dollar corporation and a beneficiary of lucrative federal contracts, schemed to “maximize profits” by forcing immigrants in its so-called voluntary work program to clean, cook, and maintain the facility. Immigrants who refused to work were allegedly threatened “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,” the lawsuit said. “Under these circumstances, no labor is voluntary – it is forced.”
“While officials portray the labor program as ‘voluntary’ in light of the 13th amendment of the US constitution, detained immigrants are often penalized for refusing to work,” Project South legal and advocacy director Azadeh Shahshahani wrote in The Guardian back in 2018.
In 2021, GEO Group, another private prison company, was ordered to pay more than $23 million dollars after a court found it had violated state minimum wage laws by paying detained migrants $1 a day for their forced labor at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Washington state. Stewart Detention Center, meanwhile, already has a history of alleged abuses against migrants, including a series of sexual assaults by a male nurse in 2021 and 2022. In case after case, brave immigrants have stepped forward to share their stories in hopes that justice can be served and no other person must endure these kinds of abuses.
Only a small percentage of immigrant detainees are actually held in government-owned facilities, with the vast majority held, through ICE contracts, in county jails and private facilities. Many of these sites have for years now been accused of subpar conditions, medical mismanagement, and have experienced completely preventable deaths on their watch. Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, the first immigrant to die after contracting COVID-19 while in ICE custody, had been held at a CoreCivic facility. Mejia had been on a court-mandated list of medically vulnerable detainees who could have been released, but by then he was already sick.
“This settlement is only the first step in the long struggle towards justice for survivors of forced labor and other human rights violations at this notorious ICE prison,” Shahshahani said following the CoreCivic settlement. “The declaration of rights is a call to action to those in immigration jails to keep fighting for justice, and it makes clear that they should not face the abuses that I suffered at Stewart,” said Wilhen Hill Barrientos, a plaintiff and former detainee at the facility.