It appears that private prison operators are coercing “voluntary” labor out of immigration detainees, in violation of the 13th amendment, which reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.“
Apparently, the Constitution of the United States of America is not something that concerns the Department of Homeland Security:
Officials at a privately run Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in rural Georgia locked an immigrant detainee in solitary confinement last November as punishment for encouraging fellow detainees to stop working in a labor program that ICE says is strictly voluntary.
Shoaib Ahmed, a 24-year-old who immigrated to America to escape political persecution in Bangladesh, told The Intercept that the privately run detention center placed him in isolation for 10 days after an officer overheard him simply saying “no work tomorrow.” Ahmed said he was expressing frustration over the detention center — run by prison contractor CoreCivic — having delayed his weekly paycheck of $20 for work in the facility’s kitchen.
Those in ICE custody often work for as little as $1 per day and cannot legally be compelled to work.
Ahmed’s account adds to a growing chorus of ICE detainees who allege that they have been forced to work in for-profit ICE facilities or else risk punishment with solitary confinement — a harsh form of captivity that, if prolonged, can amount to torture. Late last month, ICE detainees at a CoreCivic-run facility in California sued the private prison contractor, alleging that they had been threatened with solitary confinement if they did not work. In October, The Intercept reported that officials had placed another detainee in solitary confinement for 30 days for “encouraging others to participate in a work stoppage” at the same privately run facility where Ahmed was disciplined, the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.
CoreCivic has said that its practices of segregating detainees in individual cells are humane and has disputed the term “solitary confinement,” arguing that its harsh connotation does not apply to the publicly traded firm’s practices. “Use of the term in your coverage with regard to Stewart would give readers a false impression of the reality of restricted housing at the facility,” CoreCivic spokesperson Jonathan Burns said in an email.
But over the course of two interviews with The Intercept over a fuzzy detention center phone line, Ahmed used rudimentary English to describe being subjected to the isolating conditions of solitary confinement as it is generally understood. “The room is at all times locked,” Ahmed said. “If you talk, the sound does not go outside. And nobody comes to talk with us.”
“Sometimes I think I will be mentally sick,” Ahmed said of his time in isolation. “I feel pain in my head.”
In addition to severe isolation, Ahmed spoke of being subjected to restrictive treatment in segregation that might be more expected for a violent and volatile criminal than for an immigration detainee under punishment for encouraging a work stoppage.
In recent years, current and former ICE detainees have filed class-action lawsuits alleging forced labor against private prison contractors in Washington state, California, and Colorado. Across the country, detainees and advocates have said that the ICE contractors used solitary confinement as a cudgel to force work, and allege that the for-profit facility operators are profiting off the bonded labor.
“These big corporations are circumventing the traditional labor market,” said Lydia Wright, an attorney at the Burns Charest law firm who represents current and former ICE detainees suing CoreCivic in California. “If they weren’t requiring detainees to work for $1 per day, they would have to hire cooks and janitors at minimum wage.”
In an October response to a suit from detainees in Colorado, major private prison contractor GEO Group appeared to echo this point. “Were a court to conclude that GEO must pay thousands of detainees a minimum wage, it would significantly affect the prices that GEO would have charge for its services,” stated a GEO Group court filing. The Colorado class-action suit, which demands that detainees be paid minimum wage for their labor, “poses a potentially catastrophic risk to GEO’s ability to honor its contracts with the federal government,” the firm stated in a separate filing.
One obstacle such suits against ICE’s private contractors may face: Many of the immigrant plaintiffs are only fleetingly in the country before often being deported, making it potentially difficult, for instance, to find former detainees who may be entitled to back wages.