Photo: AP

A lawsuit filed in 2014 against GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies in the country, gained class action status this week following a ruling by U.S. District Judge John Kane. The lawsuit alleges that as many as 60,000 immigrants imprisoned by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement in one of the company’s immigrant detention centers were forced to work for a $1 a day or no money at all, which would be a violation of federal anti-slavery laws, the Washington Post reports.

The prison in question, the Denver Contract Detention Facility, detains immigrants awaiting court appearances. The 1,500-bed facility is operated out of Aurora, Colorado by GEO Group and is under contract with ICE. This is the first instance of a class action lawsuit accusing a U.S. private prison company of forced labor being allowed to progress.

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The lawsuit was originally filed on behalf of nine immigrants who claimed that detainees at the facility were forced to work without pay (they were allegedly threatened with solitary confinement if they refused to do so), which would violate the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The initial plaintiffs sought a maximum of $5 million in damages, a number that is likely to increase greatly now that tens of thousands of current and former incarcerated people are taking part in the lawsuit.

In addition to possibly flouting federal anti-slavery law, GEO Group is being accused of violating Colorado’s minimum way laws by paying detainees, at most, $8 less than the state’s $9 minimum hourly wage. According to the Washington Post, GEO Group isn’t even denying that it pays its some inmates $1, it’s just arguing that this practice doesn’t break any laws. In 2014 GEO Group filed to dismiss the suit on the grounds that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act is inapplicable to the case and that minimum wage laws don’t apply to immigrant detainees (the judge only sided with GEO Group on the latter point).

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While ICE is not a party to the suit, it’s their Voluntary Work Program that detainees sign up for, lending the practice an air of legitimacy. In this program, inmates work 40 hours a week cooking and cleaning, which Jacqueline Stevens, who runs Northwestern University’s Deportation Research Clinton told the Washington Post does not meet the legal definition of “volunteer work.”

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Such practices are particularly worrying given the Trump administration’s plans (some stages of which have already been put into practice) to imprison and deport greater numbers of undocumented people, and to expand immigrant detention facilities. GEO Group’s stocks, along with those of top private prison operator CoreCivic (formerly CCA), have risen dramatically since Trump’s election.

[via Washington Post]