private prisons

At least 127,000 detained immigrants have performed maintenance work in for-profit, private prisons run by CoreCivic, making as little as a dollar a day. This work is often forced labor. Now, detainees are suing for fair wages and better treatment.

One complaint describes the experience of detainees punished for refusing work assignments from CoreCivic, in violation of labor trafficking laws. One example of this forced volunteerism at CoreCivic prisons comes from Kenyan asylum-seeker Sylvester Owino.

Owino was made to work up to 14 hours a day at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego for just a dollar a day. He was told to sign the employment contract without reading it. The pay, meager as it was, wasn’t consistent either. Complaints allege that even when missed payments were reported to CoreCivic, it wasn’t certain that the money would get credited to the detainee.

Phone calls cost money. Stamps cost money. Contact with the outside world was essentially for volunteers only. CoreCivic also sold food to detainees at a 30% markup, often only serving rice for meals otherwise. Detainees were given the impression that working for CoreCivic would help their cases. When these tactics failed to motivate detainees to volunteer, detainees were threatened with solitary confinement.

It wasn’t as though CoreCivic was not being well-compensated elsewhere for taking detainees. The government provided $95.20 per detainee per day, with a minimum guarantee of 461 detainees. This promised a bare minimum of nearly $50,000 per day to a facility. And the work provided by detainees at such a low figure saved the company an incredible amount — over ten years CoreCivic saved over $2 billion by using detainee labor instead of minimum-wage workers, based on court filings.

These abuses have also caused CoreCivic to be reported to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants for violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibition on slavery.

Use of prisoners as laborers isn’t limited to detained migrants. The prison system nationwide is rife with forced labor in both public and private prisons. Prisoners risk their lives fighting California’s wildfires for $1 an hour, not all of whom are adults. Prisoners can get solitary confinement for speaking out about their treatment and discouraging others’ participation in the prison labor system. In fact, only about a quarter of CoreCivic’s revenue comes from custody of migrants.

CoreCivic is also a major political contributor, especially to Republicans.

In a statement, CoreCivic said “detainees are subject to no disciplinary action whatsoever if they choose not to participate in the work program.” This runs counter to several reports in the complaints against CoreCivic.

CoreCivic holds that it is not acting against American law, citing a statute by Congress that allows its dollar-a-day wages. This, according to reports, is a reference to a law that set the pay rate for Japanese-descended people in World War II concentration camps at 80 cents per day. That rate, applied to prisoners as well, was raised to a dollar in 1950. The rate has not been adjusted in nearly 70 years, but if it had been indexed to inflation it would be $25 per day today.

(Featured image: Bureau of Land Management/Public Domain)


Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.

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