Protesters in solidarity with an inmate hunger strike at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center.
Protesters in solidarity with an inmate hunger strike at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center. NWDC RESISTANCE

After months of protests and hunger strikes at the Northwest Detention Center, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced today his office is suing the detention center for its practice of paying inmates $1 a day or less for work inside the jail.

The lawsuit alleges both that GEO Group is violating state minimum wage laws and that it is unjustly profiting off of how little it’s paying inmates to do work for which it would otherwise have to pay employees the minimum wage. Ferguson said today he believes his is the first state attorney general’s office to ever bring “claims like this.”

Ferguson said an investigation by his office confirmed what inmates and advocates have said: Detainees at the private jail do janitorial, maintenance, and other work for $1 a day or commissary credits ("chips and candy," Ferguson said today).

State law exempts government facilities, including city, county, and state jails from paying the minimum wage. In a complaint filed today, the Attorney General's office argues that because the NWDC is a private facility, it is not covered by those exemptions. Those exemptions are "narrow and certainly don't apply to a for-profit corporation," Ferguson said today.

“Let’s be honest about what’s going on," Ferguson said. "GEO has a captive population of vulnerable individuals who cannot easily advocate for themselves. This corporation is exploiting those workers for their own profits."

In a statement, GEO said it "strongly refutes the baseless and meritless allegations made in this lawsuit" and emphasized that the work program is "volunteer." GEO said wage rates and standards associated with the program are "set exclusively by the federal government." Assistant Attorney General Marsha Chien said today Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requires GEO to pay at least $1 a day but also requires them to follow state laws.

Asked about the argument that the work is voluntary, Ferguson laughed and said, “If that’s their defense, I look forward to seeing them argue that in court.”

“No restaurant in our state can say, ‘Well folks are volunteering to come work at my restaurant, therefore I’m going to pay them three bucks an hour,‘” Ferguson said. “They have a business, they’re running a business, they’re making money, they have folks working at the facility. They have to pay them the minimum wage.”

The NWDC holds 1,575 inmates facing deportation—some documented, some undocumented—and is run by the GEO Group, a private prison corporation backed by, among others, the Gates Foundation. Inmates at the detention center have been protesting conditions there, including access to medical care, food served in the cafeteria, and pay for prison labor.

GEO Group also faces a class action lawsuit over treatment and pay to inmates in Colorado.

The AG's office says GEO should be paying the $11 state minimum wage. The state is seeking an unspecified amount from GEO but it will likely be in the "millions," Ferguson said. If successful, that money would go into a fund to support people detained by GEO and to support people in communities near the prison who may have worked maintenance or other jobs at the prison if GEO was hiring people for those jobs instead of using inmates.

Jorge Barón, executive director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, expressed support for the lawsuit today. "We have long been troubled by the conditions and really that this facility exists in the first place," Barón said.

Barón said some inmates in the jail are asylum seekers or formerly unaccompanied youth who are detained when they become adults..

“We should acknowledge the courage that they’ve had speaking out in difficult conditions,” Barón said of inmates who’ve recently protested their conditions, “and I see today’s action as a way to respond to the concerns they themselves have articulated.”

The federal government “has not held the GEO Group accountable,” Barón said, “so I’m glad that our state is stepping up.”