It was late March and Arafat Hasan Riad was entering his seventh day in solitary confinement. Speaking over a fuzzy phone line from a privately run Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in rural Georgia, the Bangladeshi immigrant was struggling to cope.
Riad explained, in rudimentary English, that his punishment had followed a pay dispute with CoreCivic, the billion-dollar prison corporation that runs the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, where he was being held. The amount in question was $8.
Riad’s account marks the latest instance in which CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, stands accused of using the punishing conditions of solitary confinement to manage its detainee labor program, which pays detainees well below minimum wage for jobs that keep its facilities running.
Other instances of CoreCivic using isolation to punish detainee workers are detailed in a class-action lawsuit filed in Georgia this week, which claims that CoreCivic’s operations at Stewart amount to a “deprivation scheme intended to force detained immigrants to work for nearly free.” Punishment, including solitary confinement, is used to ensure work gets done, the suit alleges.
Riad, who is not named in the lawsuit, told The Intercept that he worked as a cook in the detention facility’s kitchen for a wage of 50 cents per hour, and said he was locked in solitary confinement after CoreCivic accused him of dishonestly claiming two days of wages that facility officials said he wasn’t owed. (Riad rejects the allegation, arguing that he did work the hours. He did not specifically allege that solitary confinement was used to force him to work.)
“Every human needs to talk to somebody else,” Riad said. “But in segregation, I am only alone.”
In 2011, a report by Juan E. Méndez, then the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, found that solitary confinement can lead to irreversible psychological disorders in a matter of just a few days and, as a result, can constitute serious violations of international laws and conventions, including prohibitions against cruel and inhumane punishment and torture.
After just a week in CoreCivic’s solitary confinement cell, Riad said he was already feeling the effects of isolation. “Even one day — 24 hours — in segregation is very difficult,” Riad said. “Every human needs to talk to somebody else,” he said. “But in segregation, I am only alone.”
“I asked them to go outside — I tell them: ‘I feel like I’m sick; I have too much headache. I need to go outside in the yard,’” Riad recalled. “Inside, I only see the wall. I can’t see the outside, nothing. … All around, all I see is the wall and one door.”
Riad alleged that during his time in solitary confinement, CoreCivic had not provided him any outdoor recreation for at least three consecutive days, apparently because there weren’t enough detention officers on duty, he said. This account contradicts CoreCivic’s claim that it grants an hour of outdoor recreation each day for those in its isolation cells. A CoreCivic spokesperson said there had been no recent lapses in recreation time at the detention center.
Jonathan Burns, director of public affairs for the company, said CoreCivic strictly adheres to federal detention standards and, referring to Riad, said it had adhered to those “guidelines during its interactions with the individual during the time period in question.” As for this week’s lawsuit, Burns told The Intercept that CoreCivic does not comment on pending litigation.
Three days after Riad’s call with The Intercept, a local immigrant rights advocate said that Riad had been released from solitary confinement after spending 10 days in the isolation unit.
In June, records obtained by The Intercept revealed that officials at Stewart had sentenced a Haitian detainee to a month of solitary confinement as punishment for encouraging fellow detainees to stop working in protest of low wages at the facility. In November, CoreCivic locked another Bangladeshi immigrant named Shoaib Ahmed in solitary confinement as punishment for allegedly encouraging fellow detainees to stop working in Stewart’s kitchen.
Ahmed is among the plaintiffs listed in the federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in Georgia’s middle district by Project South, a regional advocacy organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the law offices of R. Andrew Free and Burns Charest LLP. The 33-page complaint claims detainees at Stewart “work because they have no other meaningful choice,” and that “CoreCivic deprives detained immigrants of basic necessities like food, toothpaste, toilet paper, and soap and contact with loved ones so that they have to work in order to purchase those items and costly phone cards at CoreCivic’s commissary.”
“Under these circumstances, no labor is voluntary — it is forced,” the suit claims.
Over the past few years, current and former ICE detainees have filed class-action lawsuits alleging forced labor against private prison firms in California, Colorado, and Washington state. In a federal filing last October, the GEO Group, a private prison contractor and primary competitor of CoreCivic, underscored the importance of its dirt-cheap detainee labor. “Were a court to conclude that GEO must pay thousands of detainees a minimum wage, it would significantly affect the prices that GEO would have to charge for its services,” attorneys for the GEO Group stated. The Colorado class-action suit, which demands that detainees be paid minimum wage for their labor, “poses a potentially catastrophic risk to GEO’s ability to honor its contracts with the federal government,” the firm stated in a separate filing.
Tuesday’s filing links allegations against CoreCivic to the historic growth and business model of for-profit immigrant detention. Over the past two decades, the nation’s capacity for immigrant detention beds has expanded from 5,532 detention beds in 1994 to a current capacity of more than 41,000, the lawsuit noted. The Trump administration has sought to increase that capacity to 51,000. Along the way, companies have evolved into billion-dollar corporations, with CoreCivic’s revenues reaching approximately $1.765 billion in 2017, according to Tuesday’s filing.
“CoreCivic’s economic windfall, and the profitability of its immigration detention enterprise, arises from its corporate scheme, plan, and pattern of systemically withholding basic necessities from detained immigrants to ensure a readily available, captive labor force that cleans, maintains, and operates its facilities for subminimum wages under threat of solitary confinement, criminal prosecution, and other sanctions,” the lawsuit notes. “Without this nearly free labor, CoreCivic’s windfall from immigrant detention would be substantially decreased.”
As for his case, Riad claims that CoreCivic used solitary confinement to punish him for simply asking for pay he was entitled to. He says that after the prison firm failed to pay him for several days of work in the detention center’s kitchen, he filed an official grievance, which CoreCivic later found to have no merit.
When Riad continued to press management for his pay, he says a CoreCivic official reviewed video of the kitchen and concluded that Riad was being dishonest about two of his days of work. Although Riad argues that the review of images from the kitchen was incomplete, he says CoreCivic officials subsequently locked him in solitary confinement as punishment for allegedly lying over the eight dollars in pay. Riad recalled: “When they finished checking the camera, he told me: ‘Now we put you in segregation.’”
Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South, says Riad’s allegations fit into a pattern that has become familiar. “As we have documented over the years, Stewart has used solitary in an abusive and retributive manner and as a first resort in response to individuals in a fragile mental health state,” said Shahshahani. “It is time for a congressional investigation of solitary at Stewart in addition to the deplorable conditions at the facility as a whole.”
Citing privacy concerns, ICE spokesperson Tamara Spicer declined to address any details of Riad’s case but defended ICE’s use of solitary confinement in broad terms. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody,” Spicer said. “The use of restrictive housing in ICE detention facilities is exceedingly rare, but at times necessary, to ensure the safety of staff and individuals in a facility.”
A separate ICE official recommended that questions regarding the specifics of Riad’s allegations be directed to CoreCivic. A CoreCivic spokesperson referred questions about specific detainees to ICE.