Dollar-a-day wage schemes in immigrant detention sound a lot like slavery

New Mexico could make moves to sue corporations for millions in back pay

November 15, 2021 5:55 am

(Photo by Catherine McQueen / Getty Images)

Across the United States, communities are reckoning with the appropriate rate of minimum wage for people at the local, state and federal levels. There is a sincere debate about whether a $15 minimum wage is actually sufficient for people trying to survive in the current economy. Yet around the country, immigrant detainees are often paid pennies per hour to do manual labor in “volunteer” work programs.  

These schemes, a common practice at privately owned detention centers, pay up to $1 — that’s not a typo, one single dollar — per day for detainees who want to do janitorial or cooking work to earn money for their commissary. Never mind that things like a pack of ramen, a bar of soap or a telephone call are astronomically more expensive inside. Imagine working a four-hour shift in a kitchen to be able to procure a cup of noodles. These practices have been aptly compared to slave labor. 

Private prison corporations defend this practice because these work programs are “voluntary.” In spite of the fact that detainees desperately need money for food, hygiene and communication, prison operators insist that this practice is sanctioned. They even go so far as to claim moral high ground for these work programs because they inject meaning into the life of a detainee. 

At the end of October in Washington State, a federal jury at a U.S. District Court disagreed. Jurors found that the biggest private prison corporation in the U.S., the Geo Group, violated state law by failing to pay detainees minimum wage. The jury awarded $17 million in back pay to the thousands of detainees who had worked for $1  per day and over $5 million to the state of Washington for unjust enrichment. Unjust enrichment is the increased value to GEO’s business that was generated from their violation of minimum wage laws. 

One of the reasons that this ruling is so important is because private prison corporations depend on detainee labor at slave wages for their business model to work. They are able to present a lower-cost bid for federal correctional contracts because rather than paying American workers a fair wage to do things like cook and clean in the facility, they pay detainees $1 per day. What is especially appalling about this model is that private prison corporations are often accepted into rural communities under the auspices of job creation. 

This is true in New Mexico. Our state is more reliant on private prison contractors than any other in the U.S., and in spite of the mountain of evidence of human rights violations and overall toxicity to our rural communities, we are told that they are necessary for job creation. 

While Geo Group does not operate any immigration detention centers in our state (they have four criminal correctional facilities), our country’s second-largest private prison corporation, Core Civic, operates two immigration detention facilities in Torrance and Cibola Counties. Core Civic also uses the $1-per-day wage for detainees who mop the floors and prepare the slop that passes as food. 

Exploiting detainees for slave labor is one of the many reasons that private prisons are a malignant presence in  New Mexico. During the legislative session this year, a bill was presented, HB 40, that would have limited the ability of private prison corporations to form contracts in our state. It did not survive the session, in part because there is a sincere question of the state power to limit contracts in that way, but also because there is a powerful myth of economic development surrounding private prisons. 

Perhaps the solution to ridding our state of private prisons is not legislative but judicial. Forcing these companies to pay minimum wage to detainees who cook and clean would go a long way to making New Mexico an unattractive place to set up shop. In 2018, three Cameroonian men who were previously detained in Cibola County sued Core Civic for labor violations under the dollar-a-day scheme. The case was not successful, and it is clear there is more work to be done. Following Washington State’s lead, the New Mexico Attorney General should explore joining in on the action of suing prison corporations under our labor laws. 

The political will might be there. Just this week, the New Mexico Corrections Department announced that two criminal correctional facilities, the Northwest Correctional Center and the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility — operated by Core Civic and the Geo Group, respectively — are being converted from private to public. This will bring the percentage of privately operated prison beds down to 24% from the near 50% at the outset of Gov. Lujan Grisham’s administration. Both of these prisons had operated privately for decades. 

It’s past time we boot detention corporations out of the state — and out of the country — and stop allowing them to exploit the sweat and labor of the people within their walls to fill their bank accounts.

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Allegra Love
Allegra Love

Allegra Love is an immigration attorney from Santa Fe. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of New Mexico School of Law. She is the founder of and former director of Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a legal services organization serving immigrants and refugees. She also worked at the El Paso Immigration Collaborative to represent detained asylum seekers in the Southwest.