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Northwestern professor’s research helps attorneys represent detainees

Class-action lawsuit accusing a private U.S. prison company of forced labor allowed to proceed

EVANSTON - A Northwestern University professor’s research continues to help attorneys navigate the rights of detainees under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) “voluntary” work program.

Last week a class-action lawsuit accusing a private U.S. prison company of forced labor was allowed to move forward for the first time -- prompted by research by Jacqueline Stevens, director of Northwestern’s Deportation Research Clinic and professor of political science in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2014 with nine plaintiffs claiming that detainees at ICE’s Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colorado, are forced to work without pay and those that refuse are threatened with solitary confinement. A recent ruling by a federal judge allowing class-action status means that the case could involve as many as 60,000 immigrants who have been detained.

According to a March 5 article in the Washington Post, which cited Stevens’ research, tens of thousands of immigrants detained by ICE were forced to work for $1 a day, or for nothing at all, which is a violation of federal anti-slavery laws, the lawsuit claims.

Stevens first learned of the program through a U.S. citizen who had been held unlawfully in a Correction Corporation of America (CCA) immigration jail in Lumpkin, Georgia. After returning from a wrongful deportation to Mexico, Mark Lyttle told Stevens the CCA owed him $32 for his midnight to 8 a.m. shift buffing floors for $1 a day.

Her working paper attacking the legality of this practice in 2015 triggered a lawsuit and a judicial order stating that private prisons may not force those in ICE custody to work. It was the first time a court had told a private prison firm housing people under U.S. immigration laws that it couldn’t force detainees to work and that if it did, restitution and damages for this “unjust enrichment” could be pursued, Stevens said.

The current lawsuit claims that six detainees are selected at random every day and forced to clean the facility’s housing units, which the suit claims violates the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibits modern-day slavery. The GEO Group, which owns and operates the Colorado facility under a contract with ICE, also is accused of violating Colorado’s unjust enrichment law paying detainees $1 a day instead of legal wages.

Under ICE’s Voluntary Work Program, detainees sign up to work and are paid $1 a day.

Stevens said the program does not meet the criteria for what qualifies as volunteer work under labor laws.

“Just slapping the word ‘volunteer’ in front of ‘work program doesn’t exempt the prison firm from paying legally mandated wages any more than McDonald’s can use ‘volunteer’ senior citizens and pay them Big Macs,” said Stevens in the Washington Post article, adding that prison labor has two purposes — to punish prisoners after they’ve been convicted of a crime and to rehabilitate them.

According to the Washington Post article, U.S. District Judge John Kane granted class-action status a few days after the Justice Department (under President Trump) directed the Bureau of Prisons to again use private prisons. Last year, the Obama administration announced it would phase out its use of some private prisons, finding that they often have more safety and security problems than those run by the government.

The Deportation Research Clinic, housed in the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University, researches and documents misconduct by agencies implementing deportation laws, producing scholarship designed to create new legal discourses.

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