Tom Ferraro's report on immigrant
detainees appeared in the July 2022
print edition of In These Times.
As Congress looked away, detainee labor paid off
It’s well-known that private prison companies are accused of illegally extracting labor from immigrants held in detention facilities.
This report shows another side of the story: the extent to which the companies allegedly used the labor to funnel federal appropriations into corporate accounts rather than paying at least minimum wages and benefits to local workers.
In his two-year investigation, 2021 FIRE Virtual Newsroom recipient Tom Ferraro found compelling evidence that Congress’ appropriations to Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) enriched two private prison companies with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, via savings from the highly contested labor.
The alleged labor abuses, the subject of multiple class-action lawsuits by immigrant detainees over almost a decade, have been widely reported (the companies say they use detainee labor only as permitted under a federal work program and deny any wrongdoing).
But this investigation—supported by the full complement of FIRE grants and services—quantified the extent to which Congress was effectively rewarding labor practices contested by the lawsuits, which are now advancing through the courts.
In deploying detained immigrants to maintain their facilities, the private prison companies were not employing workers in communities surrounding the prisons—and were instead keeping congressional appropriations for themselves, the investigation found.
ICE permitted the practice, even as the use of workers raised constitutional issues. Since the detainees inside the facilities were not convicted of crimes—but held only on immigration-related civil violations—the prison companies could not legally require them to work under the 13th Amendment.
The companies call the laborers volunteers. They say detainees receive $1 a day, sometimes more, under an ICE-authorized voluntary work program. But among other complaints, the lawsuits allege that the labor is not voluntary but is coerced, including by threatening solitary confinement and withholding "basic things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food,” as one of the lawsuits put it.
Ferraro, a former Reuter's reporter and veteran Capitol Hill correspondent, dug up a 2018 letter from the US Civil Rights Commission urging Congress to get to the bottom of the "alleged abusive labor practices." He also learned that select congressional leaders had requested investigations and that a House appropriations subcommittee asked ICE's inspector general to examine whether the voluntary work program was truly volunteer.
The calls had no visible affect. Working with a FIRE-arranged story grant from the Fund for Constitutional Government, Ferraro went about quantifying the results.
In the more than four years after the civil rights commision called for a congressional hearing on the allegatons, according to the investigation's analysis of federal contracts, ICE channeled nearly $2.5 billion in congressional appropriations to two of the nation's largest private prison companies, CoreCivic and The Geo Group, a 500% increase over the period.
As the taxpayer revenue flowed, Ferraro found, the two companies used thousands of detainees awaiting hearings within the facilities, most of whom, according to the lawsuits, were paid $1 a day to clean, cook, and perform general maintenance. (Under the program, ICE refunds that dollar back to the companies.)
To derive the estimates of how much the system saved the companies in avoided jobs, Ferraro drew on court records, the companies’ own figures, federal wage and benefit rates, and extensive public-records research by Northwestern University professor Jacqueline Stevens.
Since 2018, as the lawsuits proceeded through the courts, Congress funded the transfer of tens of millions of dollars a year in ICE appropriations to the prison companies and, via labor practices alleged in the lawsuits, into the companies’ profit columns, the investigation found.
In all, the estimate of congressional appropriations that the companies saved by using the immigrant detainees nationwide amounted to more than a quarter-billion dollars—$265 million.
It was taxpayer money, as Ferraro wrote for In These Times, "that would have been used to hire and pay janitors, cooks, dishwashers, barbers, beauticians, painters, plumbers, librarians, clerks and other non-security posts.”
The practices continue; so do the Congressional appropriations—and the half-dozen class-action lawsuits, now advancing through the courts with a recent boost from a federal jury in Washington state, may well end up in the Supreme Court, Ferraro reported.