One detail that’s getting a particular amount of attention? As reported by Miami New Times, internal emails from staffers which include complaints that detainees were not scrubbing the facility to their liking. After receiving an email of this nature in May, for example, subordinates reportedly made detainees wax floors, mop, and sweep wings of the detention center.
Ethics aside, why, if true, is this a problem? Immigration detainees are held on civil charges instead of criminal ones. Detainees have not been convicted of crimes. On a basic level, this is what (theoretically) separates the treatment of immigration detainees and incarcerated people. Voluntary work programs, however, are authorized by the federal government. Provided they’re actually voluntary, they’re technically legal.
Novoa, however, says he was coerced into working as a janitor at the facility. He said that if he refused to clean in the facility, his refusal to work would have landed him in solitary confinement. Another detainee claims he was threatened with being transferred to another housing unit at the facility. So even removing the pay factor from the equation, these claims paint a picture where “choice” is essentially a fever-dream.
"If given a meaningful choice, Mr. Novoa would not have worked for $1 per day," the suit stated. When people are systemically disenfranchised of power and autonomy, choices they’re “offered” are choices only in language, not in the practical world.
What does the company have to say about all of this? GEO passed the buck to ICE. GEO explained that it doesn’t employ the immigrants in question, and thusly doesn’t need to adhere to minimum-wage laws. If GEO doesn’t employ these people, who does? ICE.
“This is not and has never been a program implemented unilaterally by service providers like GEO, and the wage rates associated with this federal government program are stipulated under long-established guidelines set by the United States Congress,” a GEO spokesperson explained to Capital & Main.
And while according to ICE, detainees only need to keep their immediate space clean (no clutter, beds made, and so on), this all circles back to the idea that this “work program” is voluntary. But as discussed above, a work program isn’t “voluntary” if you’re threatened with solitary confinement if you refuse to participate.