ICE detainees say they were forced into labor in Ga., file lawsuit

In what could become a class-action lawsuit, immigrants argue their experience in Georgia’s largest ICE detention center violated anti-slavery laws.
Immigrants argue their experience in Georgia’s largest ICE detention center violated anti-slavery laws.  (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Immigrants argue their experience in Georgia’s largest ICE detention center violated anti-slavery laws. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

A lawsuit filed against Georgia’s largest immigrant jail charges the private prison company that runs it broke federal anti-slavery laws by forcing detainees to work against their will.

The detainees were being held at Stewart Detention Center, one of the busiest immigrant prisons in the U.S., operated like many such facilities by CoreCivic, a Nashville-based corrections company.

Immigrants say threats of punishment — and a need to earn money to buy food to supplement the center’s diet — pressured them to take prison jobs that pay between $1 and $4 per day. Earlier this summer, the plaintiffs’ legal team asked for class certification, meaning upwards of 40,000 migrants currently or formerly under the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could be covered by the suit, first filed in 2018.

“Prison corporations that have for years enriched themselves by exploiting detained immigrant labor and profiting off of human pain must be held accountable,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, a lawyer in the suit and legal director of Project South, an Atlanta-based organization that advocates for detained immigrants.

Wilhen Hill Barrientos, a Guatemalan asylum seeker, was detained at Stewart intermittently from July 2015 to June 2018. In a declaration submitted to the court, he said he was not asked whether he wanted to work upon arriving at Stewart but was instead told that failure to do so would result in solitary confinement.

He said he worked in the kitchen, regularly putting in 8- to 9-hour shifts, seven days a week — a workload in excess of ICE guidelines under its Voluntary Work Program. Other detained immigrants at Stewart cut hair, did laundry, and performed maintenance tasks.

In a statement, CoreCivic said that “All work programs at our ICE detention facilities are completely voluntary and operated in full compliance with ICE standards…. Detainees are subject to no disciplinary action whatsoever if they choose not to participate in the work program. We set and deliver the same high standard of care — including three daily meals, access to health care and other everyday living needs — regardless of whether a detainee participates in a voluntary work program.”

But plaintiffs say they were coerced to sign up to work at Stewart and threatened with punishment to keep working. The lawsuit claims that the treatment they received violated the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibits modern-day slavery, as well as state rules against “unjust enrichment.”

Such alleged abuse of the work program occurred, plaintiffs’ lawyers say, because Stewart administrators have an “utter dependence on detained workers” to operate their facility. They reference a CoreCivic staffing plan that purportedly shows a small number of janitors and maintenance workers on the company’s payroll.

In a December 2021 deposition, Stewart warden Russell Washburn said detained workers continued working over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite a request from ICE to suspend work programs for jobs that do not afford social distancing.

In 2020, a federal appeals court rejected a motion from CoreCivic to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaint. The court stated that, contrary to what the company had argued, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act does cover the conduct of private contractors operating federal immigration detention facilities.

As of Aug. 15, Stewart held 1,093 detainees, the most of any immigrant detention centers in the U.S., per federal data compiled by the Transaction Record Analysis Center.

Accounts of hunger and punishment

Gonzalo Bermudez Gutiérrez was detained at Stewart Detention Center from May 2019 to January 2020. Keysler Ramón Urbina Rojas was detained from May 2015 to June 2016. Though the men didn’t overlap at Stewart, they described their stints in detention in similar ways. They were both hungry.

In court declarations, both men said they found the food portions served at Stewart to be small and unappetizing. Urbina Rojas noted he lost 20 pounds while detained.

“I was always trying to stave off hunger while I was there,” Bermudez Gutiérrez said.

Both Bermudez Gutiérrez and Urbina Rojas said they joined the work program with the intention of spending their future wages in snacks at the commissary, to supplement their detention diets.

“Being able to purchase extra food was very important,” Urbina Rojas said.

Both men wound up working in the kitchen, performing tasks that ranged from cooking and washing dishes to scrubbing the stove and serving meals.

Stepping away from that work after signing up would trigger disciplinary action, the men noted in their declaration.

When Urbina Rojas refused to perform an additional task after finishing his work one day, he said he was taken to a single-person cell where he spent roughly 24 hours in isolation. On at least a couple of other occasions, when detained workers in his housing unit refused to go to work, Urbina Rojas said the entire unit was put on “lockdown.” During lockdowns, detainees are not allowed to leave their bed and have no access to recreation, the commissary, or to the phones, according to plaintiffs.

Additionally, Urbina Rojas said detainees were led to believe that refusing to work would impact their ongoing immigration cases.

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