Immigrant detainees’ forced labor case ends in settlement

Migrants had argued that their experience in Georgia’s largest ICE detention center violated anti-slavery laws.
A group of former immigrant detainees settled their forced labor case against CoreCivic, the operator of the Stewart Detention Center. JEREMY REDMON/jredmon@ajc.com

A group of former immigrant detainees settled their forced labor case against CoreCivic, the operator of the Stewart Detention Center. JEREMY REDMON/jredmon@ajc.com

A group of former detainees said Georgia’s largest immigrant jail broke federal anti-slavery laws by forcing them to work against their will. Their 2018 lawsuit against CoreCivic, the private prison company that operates South Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center, ended with a settlement last week.

Plaintiffs had alleged that threats of punishment — and a need to earn money to buy food to supplement the center’s spartan diet — led them to take prison jobs that paid between $1 and $4 per day.

Their lawyers argued that Stewart administrators had abused the prison’s work program because the facility was understaffed and had an “utter dependence on detained workers” to keep it operational. Jobs included kitchen and maintenance tasks, among others.

The settlement requires CoreCivic to provide every detained migrant who chooses to participate in the program with a document outlining their rights, including their ability to refuse to work at any time. The settlement also provides additional, confidential benefits to individual plaintiffs.

“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 plaintiff Wilhen Hill Barrientos.

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 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) guidelines under its Voluntary Work Program.

In a statement, CoreCivic spokesperson Brian Todd said that plaintiffs’ accusations “are baseless and remain unproven.”

“Throughout these proceedings, CoreCivic has repeatedly demonstrated that our voluntary work program is appropriately designed and administrated, and we admitted no fault or wrongdoing as part of the settlement.”

Todd noted that the stipulations of the settlement are not new, but simply restate practices already in place at Stewart and other CoreCivic detention facilities.

Last year, plaintiffs had sought class certification on behalf of over 30,000 detained migrants who allegedly were also forced to work under threat of punishment. That effort failed, with a federal judge in Georgia denying that request earlier this year, noting in his decision that most Stewart detainees do not participate in the work program.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are other forced labor complaints against ICE private prison operators across the country.

The Georgia 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 Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project.

As of Sept. 18, Stewart held a daily average of 1,224 detainees, the second-most of any immigrant detention centers in the U.S., according to federal data compiled by the Transaction Record Analysis Center.

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