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The New Prison Labor Force


Just last week, I profiled the 1978 Ellis Prison strike against their exploitation by the state that forced them to pick cotton on state-owned prison farms for no wages. They won that fight but the exploitation of prisoners for economic gain continues. That includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement, our fascist ethnic cleansing branch of the federal government, who put people in detention to work, exploiting them to the last drop.

How did immigrant jailers become immigrant bosses? Private-prison companies claim to be benevolently keeping detainees busy with “voluntary” service, but detainees and rights advocates see this supposed volunteering as a byproduct of coercion.

According to the Project on Government Oversight’s (POGO) overview of complaints against ICE and its contractors over the past decade, the work imposed on incarcerated immigrants actually exploits a series of loopholes to deny them their entitled wages.

In one lawsuit filed against private-prison contractor the GEO Group, several detainees at an Aurora, Colorado, detention center accused the private security firm of illegally exploiting detainees “to clean, maintain, and operate” the 1,500-bed facility. The detainees sued for wage theft, claiming GEO paid them just $1 per day, and sometimes nothing at all, when they were ordered to clean their own housing “pods.”

Detainee Alejandro Hernandez Torres testified about daily labor at Aurora from 2012 to 2015, when he first did “cleaning work” without pay, and was then promoted to a $1-a-day job cleaning and waxing the floors. Torres recalled, “The guards told us that if anyone didn’t do the work, they’d be put in segregation,” and he saw 10 detainees placed in confinement for failing to “voluntarily” scrub their pods.

A recent class-action lawsuit against a San Diego facility managed by the private contractor CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) described roughly 100 immigrants doing tasks like laundry and managing the commissary shop, for the standard dollar-per-day wage. They also allegedly worked “voluntarily” to clean their own pods without pay, under the threat of “severe mental pain and suffering,” inflicted through “solitary confinement” and “physical restraint.” Lawyers argued that this “voluntary” system violated federal and California human-trafficking laws.

In a 2012 investigation of four ICE detention facilities in Georgia, the ACLU of Georgia described ICE detainees’ being held in unsanitary, inhumane, isolating conditions, and regularly forced to work full-time for about $1 to $3 a day. Because of sparse rations, ACLU reported, “some detainees began to work in the kitchen just so they could eat more…. one detainee lost 68 pounds.” Their “volunteering,” in other words, involved literally working for food.

A quick program we should fight for on this issue:

Step 1: Abolish ICE
Step 2: Require that prisoners, no matter where they are imprisoned or for what reason, are paid the federal or state minimum wage, whichever is highest, for all labor
Step 3: All prisoners must have the right to refuse to labor. Otherwise, they are slaves.

This is one of the many racist injustices in our nation that must end. And it won’t unless we give it more attention.

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