Immigration attorneys say pricey commissary goods are part of a broader strategy by private prisons to harness cheap inmate labor that lowers operating costs and boosts profits.
Immigrants and activists say facilities such as those owned by Boca Raton, Fla.-based Geo Group Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit corrections company, deliberately skimp on essentials, even food, to coerce detainees to labor for pennies an hour to supplement meager rations.
Relatives can send money electronically to fund their loved ones’ commissary accounts, for fees that can reach as high as 10 percent of the amount deposited, some families report. But for many immigrant detainees, scrubbing toilets or mopping floors is the only way they say they can earn enough to stay clean and fed.
You “either work for a few cents an hour or live without basic things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food,” detainee Wilhen Hill Barrientos, 67, said in a class-action lawsuit filed last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center against Nashville-based CoreCivic Inc., the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison operator. In the complaint, Barrientos said guards told him to “use his fingers” when he asked for toilet paper at the Stewart Detention Center, located in rural Lumpkin, Georgia.
Detainees are challenging what they say is an oppressive business model in which the companies deprive them of essentials to force them to work for sub-minimum wages, money that is soon recaptured in the firms’ own commissaries.
“These private prison companies are profiting off of what is essentially a company-store scenario,” said the SPLC’s Meredith Stewart, a lead attorney on the class action.
Immigrant rights groups have filed similar lawsuits against CoreCivic and Geo Group in California, Colorado, Texas and Washington.
Government watchdogs and lawmakers are taking notice too.
In November, 11 U.S. senators, including 2020 presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, sent letters to Geo Group and CoreCivic lambasting the “perverse profit incentive at the core of the private prison business,” which has benefited from a crackdown on illegal immigrants under U.S. President Donald Trump.