Forced Labor in Privatized Prisons? Eleventh Circuit Cries Foul!

Written by: Phillip E. Friduss, Esq.

On February 28, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appellate court for Alabama, Florida, and Georgia) ruled that a federal statute designed to combat human trafficking applies to a privatized federal corrections facility’s alleged practice of punishing and withholding basic human necessities from inmates who refuse to work.  Barrientos v. CoreCivic Inc., Case No. 18-15081. The law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, prohibits, among other things, the use of forced labor.

CoreCivic operates a for-profit ICE federal immigration detention facility in Lumpkin County, Ga.  As a private contractor, other federal law requires CoreCivic to operate a “voluntary work program”, subject to various and sundry requirements.  But a class of inmates say the program is anything but voluntary, and thus sued.

According to the class, if an inmate refuses to work, he’s tossed into the “Chicken Coup”, so designated by the inmates for its unsanitary conditions and overcrowding.  The inmates claim that in the Chicken Coup showers are moldy and not temperature controlled; basic hygiene products such as soap, toilet paper, food and toothpaste are not provided; and there is a loss of contact with loved ones in that those who don’t work have to buy expensive phone cards.

Those who work?  Not housed in the Chicken Coop, sayeth the inmates.  They get two bunk cells, share a toilet with just one other, all basics are provided for by the prison, and, they get a shower with temperature control.

While the Eleventh Circuit did not reach the merits, it had little trouble finding that the plain and unambiguous language of the statute criminalizing and applying to “[w]hoever” knowingly provides or obtains such forced labor or services from a “person”, applied to the situation presented.  The Court recognized that while the statute was enacted particularly to protect women and children from being sold into slavery, the inmates’ dilemma was not so far afoul of the understood purpose of the Act to disregard the clear language of the statute.

Currently, the same question is being litigated in federal courts in California, Colorado, Texas, and Washington.  We’ll keep an eye out.