Advocacy groups have weighed in on a lawsuit against the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison provider, arguing in recently filed “friend-of-the-court briefs” that GEO Group Inc.’s alleged practices of relying on cheap and unpaid labor by detained immigrants underscores abuses to this vulnerable community.
Attorneys who filed the lawsuit in 2014 are currently fighting to uphold class certification in the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado in Denver originally certified the class, which could include as many as 60,000 detainees who cycled in and out of the GEO Group-owned Aurora Processing Detention Center in since 2004.
Over the last week, a slew of advocacy organizations, including The Southern Poverty Law Center, Public Citizen and a group of national immigrant rights groups, filed briefs that point to the broader implications of the case — noting issues around human trafficking and the for-profit prison industry. They also discussed the importance of class actions for vulnerable immigrant groups.
This potential class action against GEO, a Republican campaign donor, comes at a time when the $3 billion for-profit prison industry is gaining support from the Trump administration. Earlier this year, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded guidance from the Obama administration that would have reduced the construction of privately owned prisons.
A separate complaint has also been filed at the Federal Election Commission by the Campaign Legal Center against GEO, claiming the company illegally contributed $225,000 to a pro-Trump PAC during the 2016 election.
And according to reports, the U.S. Department of Justice under President Donald Trump has awarded the GEO Group more federal contracts for private prison facilities.
“This is about the excesses of the private prison system and how it almost invariably led to forced labor and human trafficking,” said David Lopez of Outten & Golden, who represents the plaintiffs in the Aurora case. “This case illustrates why it’s dangerous and they have a built-in system to keep the costs down. Absent of such class actions, who will hold them accountable?”
Outten & Golden attorneys this year joined Nashville-based immigration attorney Andrew Free, attorneys for Denver-based advocacy group Towards Justice and Colorado-based attorneys for Milstein Law Office and Meyers Law Office in bringing the suit.
The lawsuit claims that GEO amassed enormous profits through “forced labor” provided to the Aurora prison through a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The suit takes aim at the company’s “sanitation policy” that required ICE detainees to work as janitors without pay under the threat of solitary confinement. It also targets a “voluntary work program” that allegedly paid detainees only $1 a day. Two classes were certified by the Denver federal court that could include between 40,000 to 60,000 laborers that were detained in Aurora over the last 10 years.
The private prison system, and its profit margin, appears to depend upon this type of labor, Free said. He said the case in Colorado is a reflection that such policies and practices affect a wide array of people in the immigration system.
“These policies run directly counter to protections that people have fought hard to apply to all immigrants and workers,” Free said. “How exactly would these staffing plans work if companies were not allowed to use free and nearly free labor of detainees?”
In a statement, GEO responded that the volunteer work program at all of its 143 immigration facilities, as well as the minimum wage rates and standards, are set by the government. The company also said that all of its facilities, including the Aurora center, are “highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure and humane residential environments pursuant to the federal government’s national standards.”
“GEO has consistently, strongly refuted the allegations made in this lawsuit, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” the company said in the statement.
Attorneys with Burns, Figa & Will and Norton Rose Fulbright US represent the company in the case.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s amicus brief targeted the alleged practice of solitary confinement for detainees.
The center called the practice inhumane and pointed to social science research that shows that, “Segregation causes profound psychological harm, including anxiety, hallucinations and self-mutilation, among other symptoms.” It argues that a growing number of courts, and the United Nations, have recognized the practice as inhumane.
Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, and the National Employment Law Project argue in their brief that class actions like this one are critically important tools for seeking justice. The groups say this case brought by former detainees at the Aurora facility is exactly the type of case designed for a class action, given that the members would be foreign nationals, many of whom do not speak English and cannot afford counsel.
“If this case does not proceed as a class action, either the courts will be faced with thousands of lawsuits that rely on identical evidence or, far more likely, the rights of thousands of people with potentially viable claims will go unredressed,” the brief states.
Several advocacy groups, including the National Immigrant Justice Center, the Human Rights Defense Center and the National Immigration Law Center, also argued in a brief that a class action may be the only method for justice for noncitizens in immigration detention trying to assert their legal rights.
“As the district court correctly found, this population faces inherent hurdles, including a lack of education, language barriers, and little or no knowledge of the U.S. court system,” the brief argues.