Arguing that Washington state law’s exemption allowing jails to pay prisoners less than minimum wage does not apply to a privately-operated detention center, the Attorney General Office filed a lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court today seeking millions of dollars.

The complaint alleges that GEO Group Inc., the second-largest private prison operator in the U.S., is taking ill-gotten profits by not paying persons held in the immigration confinement for the work they perform.

According to the lawsuit, GEO uses immigration detainee labor to perform virtually all non-security functions at Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center. Since at least 2005, it has paid thousands of detainee workers $1 per day or, in some cases, just snacks and extra food for their labor. Washington’s minimum wage is currently $11 per hour.

The immigration detention center in Tacoma has capacity to house up to 1,575 immigrant detainees. Detainees perform most of the chores necessary to run the facility, except guarding detainees. This includes preparing and serving food, running the laundry services, performing facility maintenance, and cleaning common areas and restrooms. 

“The bottom line is that a fair wage should be paid for a day of work,” said Joel Sacks, director of state Department of Labor and Industries, which regulates wage standards in Washington state.

State law allows jails and prisons operated by state, county or local governments to pay persons held there for criminal justice actions just modest wages for chores and tasks done. In contrast, persons held at NW Detention are being housed by a private, for-profit facility pending civil immigration proceedings, so are not covered by the wage-hour exemption.

You can read more details on today’s lawsuit as filed at this link.