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Prison labor is nothing new. Inmates have jobs inside and out, at best to provide some reprieve from the boredom of incarceration and a few dollars in the commissary account, and at worst to provide free or barely-compensated labor to prisons or communities. Inmates, infamously, have even worked in governors' mansions. Much of the justification for prison labor comes from the fact that inmates have been found guilty of a crime and have the option to support their housing and repay their debt to society.
But what about immigration inmates who've not been convicted of a crime? And what about forced or extorted labor for which the inmates are not compensated? And what if all that labor goes to a private prison rather than the public?
Sylvester Owino and Jonathan Gomez have filed a class action lawsuit against private prison company CoreCivic, claiming the prison forces inmates to clean bathrooms and medical facilities, do inmate laundry, cook food, and run the prison law library. "In some instances CoreCivic pays detainees $1 per day, and in other instances detainees are not compensated with wages at all, for their labor and services," the lawsuit claims, adding: "In 2016, CoreCivic reported $1.79 billion in total revenues." Owino and Gomez also allege that if inmates refused to work, they were threatened with additional punishments, solitary confinement, or a loss of other privileges.
But, as their attorney Robert Teel told Vocativ, the CoreCivic facilities at which the inmates were housed weren't normal prisons:
"The immigration detention and removal system is, by law, a civil system. Those in immigration detention include asylum seekers, green card holders, and those awaiting immigration hearings. The persons within this system are not awaiting criminal trials or serving criminal sentences, and the system is not intended to serve a punitive purpose.
"What you have is a civil immigration detention system, being managed by for-profit companies, based on a criminal detention model with detainees being coerced and forced to work under threat of punishment, or in some instances for as little as $1 per day. You can imagine what an unfair competitive advantage it is for a company to pay its employees $1 per day instead of minimum wage."
The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." While Owino was served a little over a year on robbery charges in 2003 and 2004, he spent the next decade in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody going through deportation proceedings. Ultimately, he was released.
His lawsuit claims that CoreCivic's inmate work programs violated federal and state human trafficking laws as well as California state labor laws. The lawsuit is seeking an injunction against CoreCivic's forced labor practices, restitution and damages for inmates, as well as an order forcing CoreCivic to repay any profits derived from forced labor.