Detainees at an immigration detention center in Tacoma, Washington and Washington State are calling on private prison company GEO Group to raise detainee wages from $1 a day to minimum wage, but Dan Ragsdale, an EVP GEO Group, says that his company would need the permission of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That is despite a contract with the agency not setting a pay ceiling.
Ragsdale testified on Monday in the consolidated lawsuit brought against GEO Group by Washington State and detainees at a Tacoma’s Tideflats area detention center, who are paid only $1 a day for cleaning, serving meals, washing laundry, cutting hair and more, when Washington’s minimum wage is $13.69 per hour, Law360 reports.
According to the immigrant detainees, GEO Group claimed that the immigrant workers detained and working at the Northwest Detention Center are not “employees” and therefore do not qualify for the state’s minimum wage requirement of a wage of $13.50 per hour.
Ragsdale said that although there was no pay ceiling prescribed by ICE in its 200-page contract for the Northwest ICE Processing Center, or in ICE’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards, bumping the pay that much would be a “material change.”
“I think that’s such a material change, I don’t think we would be allowed to do that. In my opinion, no,” Ragsdale said.
However, a lawyer for the state pressed Ragsdale on the fact that there was no ICE standard preventing the company from paying detainees higher wages for their labor.
Ragsdale agreed that ICE does not set a pay ceiling or contemplate minimum wage in any of its standards, but he stuck to his guns that the company would need approval from the federal agency to make such a change.
He said the increase would be “such a material change that it’s something the agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and probably the Congress would have to weigh in on,” Law360 reports.
“GEO is not in a policymaking position. We don’t get to interpret the standards. We don’t get to disagree with some and agree with others,” he said.
Ragsdale added that having detainees work at the detention facility might make it harder to run than a maximum-security prison, because prisoners working “adds to the level of safety and security we have to look at.”
Ragsdale, who once served as ICE’s deputy director, said he knew of similar lawsuits filed against GEO Group in California and Colorado.
ICE is currently facing a class action lawsuit, filed by a woman who spent 22 years behind bars who says that ICE illegally uses third-party contractors to arrest immigrants who have just been released from custody, fearing it will do the same to her.
Do you think the detainees at Northwest Detention Center should get minimum wage for their labor? Let us know in the comments section!
The state is represented by Marsha Chien, Andrea Brenneke and Lane Polozola of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. The workers are represented by Jamal Whitehead and Adam Berger of Schroeter Goldmark Bender.
GEO is represented by Larry Silverman and Adrienne Scheffey of Akerman LLP and by Joan Mell.
The Immigrant Detainee Minimum Wage Lawsuits are State of Washington v. GEO Group, Case No. 3:17-cv-05806, and Nwauzor et al. v. GEO Group, Case No. 3:17-cv-05769, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
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