Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a news conference
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a news conference (Image: Elaine Thompson, AP)
State of Washington files lawsuit to pay illegal immigrant prisoners minimum wage

Washington AG files lawsuit to force prison to pay illegal immigrant prisoners $11 per hour

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit on Wednesday to force a state prison to pay its illegal immigrant prisoners a minimum wage of $11 per hour.

The lawsuit was filed against The GEO Group, a private prison corporation that operates approximately 150 detention centers in the United States.

On any day, Geo’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma Washington houses up to 1,575 illegal immigrant prisoners. The prisoners are held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody as they wait for either deportation or a hearing. While in custody, prisoners can volunteer for a work program where they perform food service, maintenance, janitorial, or other prison tasks. For their work, the prisoners are paid $1 per day or receive snacks and treats. ICE currently reimburses Geo only $1 per detainee work shift in its detention facilities.

According to the non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative group, prisoners in the United States are paid an average of $3.45 per day for such services. However, many states provide less than $1 per day, and some provide no compensation at all. Prisoners typically volunteer or compete for prison jobs by meeting approved behavior or other requirements. The vast majority of paid prison jobs involve custodial, maintenance, grounds keeping, or food service. Regular prison jobs are still entirely unpaid in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.

AG Ferguson: Prisoners are merely “vulnerable individuals”, being exploited, and in need of an advocate

Referring to prisoners as merely “vulnerable individuals” in need of an advocate, Washington AG Ferguson said at a news conference on Wednesday, “Geo has a captive population of vulnerable individuals who cannot easily advocate for themselves. This corporation is exploiting those workers for their own profits.”

Illegal immigrant prisoners housed at the Tacoma ICE detention facility
Illegal immigrant prisoners housed at the Tacoma ICE detention facility (Image: AP)

Geo, however, quickly responded with its own statement, noting that prisoners who work for wages in its prison facilities do so on a volunteer basis. Said Geo, “The volunteer work program at all federal immigration facilities as well as the minimum wage rates and standards associated with the program are set exclusively by the federal government.” Geo vowed to fight the lawsuit, “Geo strongly refutes the baseless and meritless allegations made in this lawsuit, and we intend to vigorously defend our company against these claims.”

Many reasons exist for not paying prisoners a competitive wage

Barrett Marson, a former spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, explained in a 2014 interview with the Arizona Capitol Times why prisoners should not be paid a regular wage while incarcerated. The reason, said Marson, is simply that, as part of their incarceration, the government is paying to feed and house the prisoners at great expense. Mason also pointed out that many “low-risk” prisoners participate in local work release programs outside of the prison, and that paying prisoners the same wage inside the prison will eliminate their incentive to participate in external work release programs.

The Media Research Center has also reported that incarceration costs in the United States are already sky-high at the local, state, and federal levels.

Many criminologists are also quick to point out the hypocrisy of paying prisoners at a state minimum wage level, arguing that it is unfair to pay a prisoner the same amount as a non-incarcerated person who has never broken the law who is also paying their own living, food, and housing expenses. Others note that that paying prisoners a low wage while they are incarcerated is part of making the prison experience sufficiently unpleasant to discourage the prisoner from breaking the law again.

AG lawsuit filed despite rising state unemployment and illegal immigration

The Seattle Times reported on September the 13th that, for the first time since the recession, Washington state’s unemployment rate is going up, with the Seattle area taking the biggest hit. The statewide jobless rate stood at 4.6 percent in August, up from 4.5 percent a month prior.

The Seattle Times also reported last year that illegal immigration is on the rise in Washington state, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center, and that the state was one of only six states to see an increase in illegal immigration rates during the same period.


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