Class action lawsuit brought by detainees in New Mexico accuses CoreCivic and Geo Group of violating minimum wage laws
When a New Mexico immigration detention facility needed people to cook for inmates and clean its halls, it found a solution already inside its walls.
For $0.50 or less per hour, detainees such as Mbah Emmanuel Abi and Desmond Ndambi, who have since been granted political asylum, cooked meals for their fellow inmates and worked in the facility library.
Their experience is not unique: for $1 a day – and sometimes less – migrants prepare meals, clean facilities and do laundry at privately run immigration detention centers across the country.
The practice has been compared to slave labor and has brought a pile of lawsuits to the doorsteps of the country’s two biggest private prison companies, CoreCivic and Geo Group, which in 2017 had a combined $4bn in revenue.
In a recently filed class-action lawsuit, Abi, Ndambi and one other man who fled Cameroon in 2017, brought wage theft claims against CoreCivic’s Cibola county correctional center in New Mexico.
“The fact that the company is able to obtain the labor it needs to function, for the facility to function, at vastly below market rates is part of its business model,” Joseph Sellers, an attorney at Cohen Milstein who is representing the plaintiffs, told the Guardian.
Both CoreCivic and Geo Group have said the pay is compliant with a voluntary work program mandated by the government, but attorneys said the labor is not voluntary because it is needed to pay for items such as toothpaste or to make phone calls to loved ones.
“I wouldn’t call it voluntarily,” Sellers said. “They do this work because they need the income, which is meager, certainly, to help pay for sundries and various things like toothpaste they may need while they are confined and don’t otherwise have.”
The New Mexico case was filed in a federal court in Maryland last week and centers on CoreCivic’s alleged violation of minimum wage laws.
“We’re looking into it in other places,” Sellers said. “It regrettably appears to be a widespread phenomenon.”
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