State AG Bob Ferguson files lawsuit against company that operates Northwest Detention Center

“One dollar a day. Give me a break,” said State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who filed suit against the country’s fourth-largest detention center, in Tacoma. That’s the amount detainees are paid to work — a violation of the state’s minimum-wage law, Ferguson charges.

Furthering his reputation as a crusader on immigration issues, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson is taking on the multibillion-dollar corporation that runs the country’s fourth-largest detention center, located in Tacoma.

Ferguson filed a lawsuit Wednesday against The GEO Group, which operates the Northwest Detention Center and roughly 140 other such facilities nationwide. The suit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court, accuses GEO of violating state minimum-wage law by paying detainees $1 a day — or sometimes just chips and candy — to work at the detention center.

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

GEO projected in 2015 that its Tacoma facility would take in $57 million in revenues annually at full capacity, around 1,575 people. Nationally, the company earned more than $2 billion in 2016.

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Yet the Florida-based company uses detainee labor to perform virtually all work at the detention center besides security, according to Ferguson. That includes preparing meals, doing laundry and cleaning common areas and restrooms.

“GEO strongly refutes the baseless and meritless allegations made in this lawsuit, and we intend to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” said the company in a statement.

The statement called detainee labor a “voluntary work program” — a notion Ferguson’s lawsuit does not dispute, although an attorney in his office said some detainees indicated they felt compelled to work. Immigrants in Colorado filed a class-action suit this year saying they were forced to work in a facility there.

GEO’s statement also said its wage rates follow standards set “exclusively” by the federal government. That might mean that GEO plans to challenge the state’s authority. Pablo Paez, GEO’s vice president for corporate relations, declined to elaborate.

Ferguson’s office said GEO’s contract with…

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