Boca Private-Prison Giant Sued Again Over "Forced Labor" Claims at ICE Detention Centers

The GEO Group's headquarters in Boca Raton.
The GEO Group's headquarters in Boca Raton. Eflatmajor7th / Wikimedia Commons
Boca Raton's GEO Group is the second-largest private-prison company in America and makes a huge portion of its income imprisoning people on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It has repeatedly denied inmates in its facilities are forced to work against their will. The company rejected those claims in 2014, when a group of former detainees from Colorado filed a lawsuit alleging GEO forced them to work. The company refuted those claims again when the Washington state attorney general sued the company this past  September.

Last week, California inmate Raul Novoa filed a legal complaint against the South Florida company, alleging that he and other inmates were forced to labor inside a GEO facility and that the company "maintains a corporate policy and uniform practice" of forcing inmates to work for $1 per day, which they need to buy basic necessities such as "food, water, and hygiene products."

Novoa's suit, which was first reported by Law360, also contends GEO punishes detainees who refuse to work by throwing them into "disciplinary segregation or solitary confinement," reporting them to ICE, or "referring them for criminal prosecution."

GEO is a multibillion-dollar juggernaut and one of the most politically powerful entities in the state. Politicians — including Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, Gov. Rick Scott, Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, and most of the Florida Legislature — have been rightly criticized for accepting major campaign donations from GEO despite the company's abysmal human rights record.

GEO maintains ICE facilities across the nation that hold people the government has placed in deportation proceedings. The inmates are civil rather than criminal detainees. But that fact hasn't shielded GEO from accusations of abuse. Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union accused GEO of torturing detainees at its facility in Aurora, Colorado, by withholding food, water, and access to restrooms. The inmates in question were Iraqi nationals who had joined an ACLU lawsuit to halt their deportation proceedings — the civil liberties group claims GEO and ICE were punishing the detainees for speaking out.

Inmates at that very same, 1,500-bed Colorado facility sued GEO in 2014, alleging they were paid only $1 per day to perform mandatory, menial tasks at the detention center in exchange for basic, life-sustaining items. In March 2017, a federal judge certified that lawsuit's class-action status, meaning ICE and GEO could be forced to pay back 60,000 inmates if courts find the inmates' rights were violated.

Washington state is locked in a fight with GEO over this same issue: State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the company in September, alleging GEO's $1-per-day wages at a 1,575-bed facility in Tacoma violate the state's $11-per-hour minimum-wage law. Typically, minimum-wage laws don't apply to prison facilities, but Ferguson argues that because GEO is a private company holding people on civil rather than criminal charges, the wage floor should apply.

According to the lawsuit, Novoa, the California inmate, was detained at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center northeast of Los Angeles in San Bernardino County, which began housing detainees in 2011. Since then, the suit says, more than 73,000 people have passed through the facility in government custody. It has been cited in the past for a series of problems, including accusations of inadequate medical care so pronounced that more than 24 members of Congress wrote a letter expressing concerns about neglect at the facility in 2015. This year, the Detention Watch Network, a group of civil rights advocates, labeled Adelanto the "deadliest" ICE detention center of 2017.

In the meantime, Novoa's suit claims GEO is using forced inmate labor to "clean, maintain, and operate" the facility through its Voluntary Work Program, which is anything but voluntary. Detainees scrub floors, clean windows, wash laundry, cut hair, and even perform clerical work for the GEO company for the can't-beat-it price of $1 per hour. Novoa claims GEO uses the work program to avoid paying union employees fair wages, and if inmates refuse to participate, they are sometimes thrown into solitary confinement.

In the past, GEO has called similar claims "baseless" and said the company complies with state and federal regulations.

“The volunteer work program at all federal immigration facilities as well as the minimum wage rates and standards associated with the program are set exclusively by the federal government,” GEO told Reuters in September.

Novoa himself is a Mexican immigrant and green-card-holder who worked a $15.65-per-hour construction job in Los Angeles until he was detained in 2012. He says he was forced to work four-hour shifts "up to seven days per week" as a janitor and barber and spent the little money he made on food and hygiene products.

"GEO retained the value of Mr. Novoa’s labor by realizing this value as corporate profits, rather than using it to provide for safer, more humane living conditions for detainees at the Adelanto Facility," the suit claims.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.