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Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma faces $23 million penalty for wage violations

22 Dec 2023, Jail News, by

The Washington Supreme Court confirms a $23 million penalty against the Northwest Detention Center for paying detainees $1 a day.

Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma faces $23 million penalty for wage violations - Inmate Lookup

The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, a private immigration prison, has been ordered to pay more than $23 million in back pay and penalties by the Washington State Supreme Court for violating the state’s minimum wage law. The unanimous decision was made on Thursday.

The case, involving the detention center, has undergone a legal journey between federal and state courts and is currently in the appeals process in a federal court.

The Northwest Detention Center has the capacity to hold more than 1,500 individuals awaiting immigration status reviews and potential deportation. According to its contract with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the facility is obligated to provide a voluntary work program for detainees, giving them the opportunity to earn money while in detention.

However, the GEO Group, a Florida-based company managing over 90 detention and reentry facilities, operated the prison and paid workers only $1 a day for their labor, which included tasks such as cleaning and cooking.

In response to these practices, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, along with a group of detained individuals, filed a lawsuit in 2017 alleging violations of the state’s minimum wage law.

Following a 2021 jury verdict in their favor, the company was ordered to reimburse the workers for $17.3 million in unpaid wages. A federal judge ruled a few days later that GEO Group had amassed $5.9 million in profits over more than a decade of paying less than the minimum wage and that the corporation had to pay the state of Washington an additional $5.9 million in earnings.

With an annual revenue of $2.4 billion, the GEO Group appealed both rulings. Their argument contended that detained workers did not qualify as “employees” covered by the state’s minimum wage law.

Additionally, the company also claimed an exemption to the law, which permits publicly owned prisons and treatment facilities to pay sub-minimum wages. The GEO Group further argued that they should not be required to pay the minimum wage when the state itself does not pay the minimum wage to working inmates in its own state prisons.

Before pursuing the appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit asked the Washington State Supreme Court for clarification on certain state laws. In response, the state Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s correctness, emphasizing a meaningful distinction in state law between public and privately owned detention facilities.

Justice Charles Johnson, writing for the unanimous court, concluded that detained workers at private detention facilities are considered “employees” under the state minimum wage act.

Detention facilities classified as “state, county, or municipal” are exempt from the state minimum wage law.

Johnson clarified that the legislature’s specification of the exemption for persons detained in “state, county, or municipal” institutions differentiates between public and private institutions. He argued that if the legislature intended to exclude people detained in private institutions, it would have done so specifically.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson praised the ruling as a “major victory for Washington workers and basic human dignity.”

Christopher Ferreira, a spokesperson for GEO Group, expressed disappointment, asserting that the Washington Supreme Court deviated from uniform precedent in courts across the country, which held that minimum wage laws do not apply to individuals held in custodial detention facilities.

The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma has a history of controversy, witnessing hunger strikes and protests over food and sanitation conditions. After contraband razor blades were found in the current year, GEO Group verified the usage of “chemical agents,” maybe tear gas.

Despite a state law passed in 2021 that sought to close the facility—the state’s only privately run prison—a federal appeals court decision in California invalidated the law. The decision stated that a similar law in California violated the Constitution by interfering with federal government powers.

This year, Washington acknowledged that it was bound by the California ruling and opted not to enforce the law.

Over the past year, the Northwest Detention Center has housed an average of 649 people daily, according to an ICE database. However, the contract between the facility and GEO Group ensures payment for a minimum of 1,181 people per day, irrespective of the actual number of individuals incarcerated.