"We have a name for locking people up and forcing them to do real work without wages. It's called slavery."
So says Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, speaking of the privately run detention centers for undocumented immigrants who're facing deportation. These centers are not meant to be punitive, and many of the people in them will have their immigration claims upheld.
But they're run like private prisons, complete with solitary confinement for non-compliance, including non-compliance with orders to do hard physical labor for $1-3/day. The forced labor has already killed at least one worker, who was ordered the jackhammer the ground over a buried power cable and received a lethal shock.
In these detention centers, the captive audience of detainees may only purchase goods from a high-markup commissary that charges 200% to 700% more than nearby stores. For parents who want to give their imprisoned children a small treat — a $4 bag of chips, say — the dollar-a-day labor is the only way. Thus it is that the corporations and police departments who run these centers (the notoriously corrupt LA Sheriff's office operates some under contract) can punish their victims both by forcing them to work and forbidding them from working.
The major player in the corruption scandals here is the Geo Group, America's second-largest private prison operator. Systemwide, the "voluntary labor" program for detained migrants saves an estimated $2 billion annually: or, put another way, detained migrants in America are deprived of at least $2 billion in wages every year.
She pointed to the case of Cesar Gonzalez, 36, of Pomona, who was working with a jackhammer while detained at the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster in 2007. He struck a power line, was electrocuted, suffered burns and a heart attack and later died, according to Cal OSHA records.
Gonzalez's wife sued Los Angeles County and the sheriff's office, which contracted with ICE to run the detention center. She received a $750,000 settlement in 2012. Cal OSHA described the immigrant as an employee and faulted the detention center for what happened, fining it $18,750.
"As long as they find people doing that work are covered by Cal OSHA, how is it the position of these private companies and ICE that everybody else doing similar work isn't covered?" Stevens said.
Critics also accuse the for-profit prison companies that run the detention centers of using work as leverage to control detainees.
In April, Cruz and two other detainees filed a federal lawsuit in San Antonio against Geo Group and Homeland Security, alleging they lost their jobs because they staged hunger strikes and work stoppages to demand improved conditions at the Karnes City center.
"As soon as we had the first hunger strike, they took away my work," said Cruz, who was released in June and now lives with her son in Los Angeles. "They told me it was because I was the leader."
Taking away immigrants' jobs at detention centers "is a frequent form of punishment and is pretty potent," said Free, the Nashville lawyer.
Paid $1 to $3 a day, unauthorized immigrants keep family detention centers running [Molly Hennessy-Fiske/LA Times]