On February 27, U.S. District Judge John Kane ruled that a class action suit initially filed by 9 former inmates of the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colorado could move forward. The suit will now incorporate over 60,000 people who were detained at the facility, owned by GEO, over the last decade. It is the first time that a class-action suit against a private prison, asserting forced labor, has been allowed to move forward.
Detainees say that they were forced to work for free or face solitary confinement. Some worked for $1 per day through a "voluntary" work program. By putting detainees to work mopping, cleaning, and other custodial tasks, the private prison was able to function with only one custodian, creating greater profits for them. GEO Group, one of the top three private prison companies in the US and abroad, boasts billions of dollars in profit each year.
It is not news that prisons and private prisons profit from the free or almost free labor of the incarcerated. Scholars, activists, and incarcerated folks have written about the prison-industrial complex for years. In 1997, Angela Davis gave a speech with the title "Prison-Industrial Complex" where she stated eloquently, "As we see the material expansion of the criminal justice system, what I call the prison-industrial complex, there is also an ideological campaign to convince people that criminals can be recognized by virtue of their race."
More recently, Michelle Alexander's brilliant The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness explores the insidious ways in which incarceration has become the new form of racial control. The 2016 documentary 13th whose title references the 13th amendment to the Constitution that "abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime explores the intersections of race and mass incarceration.
Over the past thirty years, mandatory detention of immigrants has expanded the prison-industrial complex and today, mandatory detention affects over 200,000 immigrants every year. Over 60% of immigrants in detention are there because of mandatory detention.
What is mandatory detention? Detention Watch Network described it as, "the practice of imprisoning an individuals without any consideration of whether incarceration is necessary or appropriate." Anyone who is not a citizen can end up in mandatory detention, including "legal permanent residents who have lived in the U.S. their entire lives, asylum seekers, torture survivors, single mothers, the sick, and the elderly."
Who lobbies for expanded mandatory detention for immigrants? Private prison corporations. They have spent millions lobbying Congress. Detention Watch Network's report, A Toxic Relationship: Private Prisons and U.S. Immigration Detention, points to the increasing involvement of lobbyists working on behalf of GEO, including former staff members of then Senator Jeff Sessions.
The class-action lawsuit has tremendous potential to start reforming private prisons detaining immigrants. There are immigrants in detention who have no criminal history. There are families in detention who come to the U.S. seeking safety for their children. In this atmosphere of hatred and anti-immigrant sentiments, it brings me hope that this class-action lawsuit has been allowed to move forward.