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What 13th Amendment?

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Outstanding Ian Urbina story on the exploitation of people held in immigrant detention centers. The immigration detention system serves as a nearly unpaid labor force thanks to the privatized prison companies controlling the prisons:

As the federal government cracks down on immigrants in the country illegally and forbids businesses to hire them, it is relying on tens of thousands of those immigrants each year to provide essential labor — usually for $1 a day or less — at the detention centers where they are held when caught by the authorities.

This work program is facing increasing resistance from detainees and criticism from immigrant advocates. In April, a lawsuit accused immigration authorities in Tacoma, Wash., of putting detainees in solitary confinement after they staged a work stoppage and hunger strike. In Houston, guards pressed other immigrants to cover shifts left vacant by detainees who refused to work in the kitchen, according to immigrants interviewed here.

Last year, at least 60,000 immigrants worked in the federal government’s nationwide patchwork of detention centers — more than worked for any other single employer in the country, according to data from United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. The cheap labor, 13 cents an hour, saves the government and the private companies $40 million or more a year by allowing them to avoid paying outside contractors the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some immigrants held at county jails work for free, or are paid with sodas or candy bars, while also providing services like meal preparation for other government institutions.

Unlike inmates convicted of crimes, who often participate in prison work programs and forfeit their rights to many wage protections, these immigrants are civil detainees placed in holding centers, most of them awaiting hearings to determine their legal status. Roughly half of the people who appear before immigration courts are ultimately permitted to stay in the United States — often because they were here legally, because they made a compelling humanitarian argument to a judge or because federal authorities decided not to pursue the case.

“I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup,” said Pedro Guzmán, 34, who had worked for restaurants in California, Minnesota and North Carolina before he was picked up and held for about 19 months, mostly at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. “And I was in the country legally.”

Who is responsible?

Detention centers are low-margin businesses, where every cent counts, said Clayton J. Mosher, a professor of sociology at Washington State University, Vancouver, who specializes in the economics of prisons. Two private prison companies, the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, control most of the immigrant detention market. Many such companies struggled in the late 1990s amid a glut of private prison construction, with more facilities built than could be filled, but a spike in immigrant detention after Sept. 11 helped revitalize the industry.

The Corrections Corporation of America’s revenue, for example, rose more than 60 percent over the last decade, and its stock price climbed to more than $30 from less than $3. Last year, the company made $301 million in net income and the GEO Group made $115 million, according to earnings reports.

Prison companies are not the only beneficiaries of immigrant labor. About 5 percent of immigrants who work are unpaid, ICE data show. Sheriff Richard K. Jones of Butler County, Ohio, said his county saved at least $200,000 to $300,000 a year by relying on about 40 detainees each month for janitorial work. “All I know is it’s a lot of money saved,” he said.

Ah, nothing like privatization to find new ways of exploiting labor.

Is this even legal?

“This in essence makes the government, which forbids everyone else from hiring people without documents, the single largest employer of undocumented immigrants in the country,” said Carl Takei, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, said she believed the program violated the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime. “By law, firms contracting with the federal government are supposed to match or increase local wages, not commit wage theft,” she said.

Immigration officials underestimate the number of immigrants involved and the hours they work, Professor Stevens added. Based on extrapolations from ICE contracts she has reviewed, she said, more than 135,000 immigrants a year may be involved, and private prison companies and the government may be avoiding paying more than $200 million in wages that outside employers would collect.

It should not be legal in any case. Everyone deserves the minimum wage and no one should be forced to work for $1 a day, regardless of their immigration status. This is just rank exploitation.

…I haven’t read it but a former colleague of mine strongly suggests this book as a history of prisons undermining the 13th Amendment.

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