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Jury Awards $17 Million in Back Pay to Former Detainees

A jury in Tacoma, Washington, has voted in favor of underpaid detainees. The GEO Group, the corporate entity in charge of a detention center for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is being called out for paying detainees only $1 an hour – a rate far below the state's minimum wage law. Let's take a closer look.

Private Prisons

The American phenomenon of prison privatization is an uncomfortable idea at the very least and a highly exploitative practice at the most. Essentially, private prisons are facilities owned and operated by a company or corporate entity that profit from prison labor.

Not all privately run prisons profit off labor, but as a general rule, private prisons are lucrative for whoever is in charge. Private prison owners may "rent out" detainees to the state to fight fires or clean up an environmental hazard.

Without the costs of a benefits package or wages, executives can reap mind-boggling rewards from the prison enterprise. GEO Group, for example, only paid detainees $1 a day for their work and profited off of the rest.

It may not sound like a newsworthy issue, and most people feel that anyone who breaks the law deserves to be treated this way. However, the Tacoma facility case proves the importance of humanizing the incarcerated and treating their labor and contribution to the economy fairly.

The Cost of Incarceration

There's a widespread misunderstanding of incarceration in America. People usually fall into two camps:

  1. Prisons are rough environments in barely livable facilities where inmates are pitted against each other.
  2. Prisons in America are somewhat "cushy" because inmates get three meals a day, comfortable beds, television, and other benefits.

The reality that many don't understand is that being a prisoner costs money. State-issued supplies like soap, a toothbrush, and meals aren't guaranteed – they can run out. Once the state-issued supplies run out, the prisoner is in a position where they either go without or a family member pays into their commissary fee so they can purchase extra items.

Telita Hayes, the ex-wife of inmate William Reese, pays hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars a month so her ex-husband can continue his day-to-day in prison.

This includes commissary fees and communication costs which breaks down to:

  • Over $2,100 in commissary fees
  • Over $3,500 for phone calls
  • Over $400 for emails through the prison's email system

These costs year after year can be a financial burden on loved ones back home, and most inmates can barely afford to cover commissary fees on a prisoner's salary, which is hardly anything.

Tacoma, WA

The Tacoma facility not only puts inmates to work and profits from their labor but barely compensates them with a minuscule $1 daily rate. A jury evaluated the situation and determined that if the GEO Group wants to utilize prison labor, they should be paying detainees fairly at the state minimum wage.

The GEO Group argues that detainees are not employees and that the facility runs outside the state's control. Their facility is federal and runs privately, which exempts them from following state labor laws.

In a way, GEO Group operates their prison like a private school. Private schools can teach based on a curriculum of their choosing without state input. However, instead of getting an education, even a shoddy one, detainees get almost nothing in return for their efforts.

In addition to ruling in favor of fair prison wages, the jury awarded over $17.3 million in back pay to former detainees. While this is great news, getting the funds to former inmates may be difficult. Because the facility houses ICE detainees, many of them may have been deported or in another state, which complicates reimbursement.

The court is working on getting them the money they are owed, and it may take time, but it's an effort that they are willing to continue to do the right thing.


Fair prison wages are a pipe dream for most inmates. The main idea that many free people miss is that labor is labor regardless of incarceration status. That said, GEO Group isn't the only private prison owner by far.

The bottom line? Many prisons are run but private entities that profit off of prison labor and exploitation and unfortunately, that reality is unlikely to change any time soon. Private prisons often take advantage of their privatization and use prisoners as cash cows for their benefit. In many cases, inmates are put in deadly situations without proper protection or training.

Prison isn't only about punishing people who break the law. Today, most people incarcerated are wrongly accused or detained until further notice while ICE gathers enough evidence to deport them. Do they deserve to be exploited?