Prison slave labor — immigrant jails in the United States

The prisoners are held without criminal charges. They work for a dollar a day or less, sometimes only for a candy bar. Some report being threatened with solitary confinement if they don’t report for “voluntary” work. It’s happening right here, in private U.S. prisons and in some county jails, according to a report in the New York Times:

“Last year, at least 60,000 immigrants worked in the federal government’s nationwide patchwork of detention centers — more than worked for any other single employer in the country, according to data from United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. The cheap labor, 13 cents an hour, saves the government and the private companies $40 million or more a year by allowing them to avoid paying outside contractors the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some immigrants held at county jails work for free, or are paid with sodas or candy bars, while also providing services like meal preparation for other government institutions.”

An extensively-documented report from Northwestern University professor Jacqueline Stevens details the system, opening with the personal account of Robinson Martinez, held at the Houston private prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America. Martinez reports working day and night shifts, working overtime, and being threatened with being put in segregation if he refuses to work. Stevens writes:

“The $1 per day wages are so low that the phrase “subminimum wages” is a misnomer. To convey a key characteristic of slavery, in particular the nonnegotiable labor and wage conditions when one party has physical control over the party receiving work orders and compensation, this Paper uses for its legal analysis of the resident worker program the phrase ‘slaving wages.'”

Martinez, Stevens reports, was brought into the United States as a three-month-old baby, adopted by his grandparents (a legal resident and a U.S. citizen), and only learned that he was not a citizen in his late 30s, when completing a prison sentence.

The New York Times article cites another prisoner on the slave wages he was paid:

“’I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup,’ said Pedro Guzmán, 34, who had worked for restaurants in California, Minnesota and North Carolina before he was picked up and held for about 19 months, mostly at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. ‘And I was in the country legally.’”

Some prisoners report being given extra pieces of chicken or cartons of milk in return for their work. According to Stevens, the government immigration service does not investigate the private, for-profit prison system’s labor practices:

“ICE fails to monitor how ICE residents fare in the work program per se. Indeed the only compliance report surveyed for this Paper that mentions the program was one conducted in 2012 at Stewart CCA in Georgia. It omits any discussion of the incidents appearing in a 2012 report published by the American Civil Liberties Union referenced above, nor this one: ‘when the medical staff give orders for detainees to rest, these order often go unheeded by CCA officers. [Eduardo Zuniga] stated that guards threatened him with ‘the hole’ if he did not get up and get back to work despite medical orders to rest.'”

The Nation reports that the prisoner labor is one more way that private prisons are making obscene profits from jailing immigrants. Some immigrant prisoners are protesting, with hunger strikes:

“Having endured indefinite detention and inhumane conditions in the prison, from barely edible food to isolation and soul-crushing boredom to janitorial work for one dollar a day, he and hundreds of his cellmates recently resorted to the only means of protest available to them: refusing to eat. … At the Northwest Detention Center, GEO Group and ICE stand accused of attempting to suppress the protests through a draconian regime of intimidation, locking strikers in solitary and even threatening them with Guantánamo Bay–style force-feeding sessions if they refuse to relent.”

Remember, the United States has contracts with the private prison systems, guaranteeing 34,000 filled beds each day.  And the money just keeps flowing. Along with the catalog of abuses, The Nation follows the money:

“Private prison corporations like GEO Group have yielded whopping gains during the Obama era, leveraging record levels of deportations overseen by the administration to win new contracts across the country. With hundreds of millions in taxpayer money channeled into company coffers each year, GEO Group has ratcheted up its lobbying efforts in Washington, joining with other members of the private prison industry to guard against financially damaging reforms. This year, the company shelled out at least $100,000 in lobbying fees, while donating even more to candidates in both parties.”



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