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  • An inmate serving a jail sentence rests his hand on a fence at Maricopa County

    An inmate serving a jail sentence rests his hand on a fence at Maricopa County's Tent City jail in Phoenix, July 30, 2010. | Photo: Reuters

Critics have likened forced labor in GEO Group's immigration detention center to slavery.

The second largest private prison company in the United States has come under fire with a class action lawsuit that may bring together up to 60,000 people suing over allegations of forced labor.

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On Tuesday, a district judge ruled to grant class action certification to the 2014 lawsuit against GEO Group. It was first launched three years ago by nine former and current detainees at the Aurora Detention Facility, near Denver, Colorado, which is operated privately on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“This is the first lawsuit of its kind in the history of the United States,” said Andrew Free, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, as reported by The Daily Beast. “This is the first time that a private prison company has ever been accused of forced labor, and this is the first time that a judge has ever found that the claims can go forward under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the bans in federal law on forced labor.”

The lawsuit alleges that GEO Group violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a measure passed in 2000 that is supposed to protect undocumented immigrants and victims of trafficking from forced labor. The plaintiffs contend that they were forced to work “without any compensation and under the threat of solitary confinement,” Vice reported. They also allege that when they were paid, it was a measly US$1 day, far below Colorado’s minimum wage of US$9.30 per hour.

“We have a name for the practice of locking people up and forcing them to work without paying them real wages," Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties National Prison Project, told the Monitor. "It’s called slavery. And companies like GEO Group stand to profit immensely from the expansion of detention centers that the Trump administration has laid out in its executive orders.”

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While private prisons in the United States have long used cheap labor under the system known as the prison-industrial complex, there is a legal difference between forced labor imposed on those held for criminalized behavior, and those detained on civil matters, like immigrants. Coercing the latter group of detainees to perform labor even violate ICE’s own work standards.

The case’s new class action status came in the wake of the Trump administration’s plans to increase both immigration enforcement activities, as well as the number of detention facilities. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also made it clear that the prison system will remain privately operated.

In response to the suit, GEO’s spokesman has denied the allegations.

“We have consistently, strongly refuted these allegations, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” Pablo Paez, a GEO spokesman, said in a statement to the Monitor. “The volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the Federal government. Our facilities, including the Aurora, Colo., facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments pursuant to the federal government’s national standards."

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