More than 50 workers from Mexico are striking at two federal detention facilities in California over unsafe working conditions, low wages, and other issues.
“We are being exploited for our labor and are being paid $1 per day to clean the dormitories,” said strikers at a central California detention center in a June statementKQED, public radio station.
Detained workers, known as “housing porters,” participate in a supposedly volunteer working program while locked up. They use their earnings to pay for exorbitant phone calls and commissary items such as dental floss and tortillas.
“They are compelled to do this,” says Alan Benjamin, a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council who heard directly from striking workers during a call with the labor council. “It’s not voluntary; it’s compulsory work, without proper sanitation and equipment.”
“The mold is terrible,” adds Benjamin. “People are getting sick, one after the other.”
California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, is currently investigating working conditions at the Golden State Annex U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, near Bakersfield, where workers have been on strike since June 6.
In May, the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice filed a complaint to Cal/OSHA on behalf of seven detainees. According to the complaint, detained workers lived in unsafe conditions. There were black mold patches crawling up shower walls. Also, black fibrous dust particles were emitted from dormitories through HVAC vents. California passed a bill last year. SB 334Private operators of immigrant-detention facilities must comply with all state health and safety regulations.
Mold spores can cause asthma, respiratory infections, and many other problems. “I’m afraid because my lung has been impacted,” a father of four held in detention at Golden State Annex told KQED. “The dust and mold are bad for our health and unfortunately, we are in a place where it feels that they don’t care about our health.”
Since April 28, the strike has been ongoing at Mesa Verde ICE detainees. GEO Group, the largest for-profit prison company in the U.S., manages the facilities. GEO also has facilities in Australia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Last year, the company earned $2.26 billion. year.
A Dollar per Day
Raul is in his twenties and has been held at the Golden State Annex since December 20, 2021. [Raul is a pseudonym, which Labor Notes has used to protect the identity of a worker who may face retaliation while in detention for speaking with the press. —Editors]He immigrated to the United States from Mexico with his parents and siblings at the age five. He told Labor Notes from behind bars that he’s striking over the paltry pay of $1 a day for eight-hour shifts and hazardous working conditions.
“The $1-a-day pay isn’t enough to eat,” he said, adding his earnings total $5 a week, which are used for commissary items and phone calls. “A video call costs about $2.50 for 15 minutes and a bag of beans is about $2.”
A 149-page research reportAccording to the ACLU, inmates are paid an average of 13 cents per hour and a maximum of 52 cents for jobs such as cleaning bathrooms or laundry. Jobs in California’s state-owned correctional facilities pay between 35 cents an hour to $1 an hour, according to the report.
Raul said the prices in immigration facilities are higher — and wages lower — than those of federally run prisons too.
At an ICE detention center, Raul said, they’re getting paid $20 a month while at a federally-run prison they could get paid about $200 a month for their labor. “They have the same vendor for the commissary for prison and ICE, but food is cheaper in prison,” he says. “A pack of beef is $4.50, and here it’s almost $6. We want them to drop the commissary prices.”
Raul told detainee workers that GEO Group refused to lower prices. They began pointing fingers at the unit supplier vendor and blamed them. “They both keep blaming each other,” said Raul. “They don’t give us a direct answer.”
Boss Says There is No Strike
GEO Group spokesperson deniesThe strike is by the workers. “Our ICE Processing Centers, including the Golden State Annex, are maintained in accordance with all applicable federal sanitation standards, with or without the contributions of Voluntary Work Program participants. Choosing not to participate in a voluntary program cannot constitute a labor strike.”
Raul stated that there were three dorms involved in the strike. There are approximately 27 workers who are participating and around 50 to 60 detainees supporting them. “We all got together because this ain’t right.” He said they took their complaints to the warden and assistant warden. “Right now, this is only affecting 27 workers, but it’s going to be more than 27 because people are coming through here. In a period of a year, hundreds or even thousands are detained.”
They are seeking asylum and visas for victims or perpetrators of certain crimes (U visa) to allow them to remain in the United States. Lisa Knox, legal director of the California Collaborative for Immigrationt Justice, said that some are also seeking relief through family petitions.
The detainees are from Central American, African, or Asian countries. Benjamin reports that many of the detainees are long-time residents Los Angeles and Kern County.
The pitifully low pay in the detention centers “depresses everybody’s wages,” said Benjamin. “In the case of these two facilities, it’s just outrageous because they’ve eliminated jobs of cleaning personnel, and said, ‘well, we have free labor from these people. Let them do that. And [the detainees] said, no, we’re not a free labor pool.”
A Washington District Court jury unanimously voted last year. found GEO Group responsible for violating the state’s minimum wage laws; the judge ordered back pay to 100,000 detainees. Last month, a complaintGEO Group was brought to trial in California by a federal court. It was alleged that the for profit company failed to maintain minimum sanitation standards and that detainees were forced to work or subject to discipline.
“We All Speak Up”
GEO is responding to the workers detained as the strike goes on. Knox claims that two strikers were placed under solitary confinement because they participated in a group demonstration.
The prison has also restricted the delivery days of the commissary to purchased food to detained workers. “You used to purchase your food and the vendor would come on Wednesdays and Fridays,” says Raul. “Now, they only come on Fridays and tell us they do not know the schedule.”
Another common scare tactic involves threatening detained workers with threats about how their behavior will look in court when they are being judged on their immigration cases. “The judge will find out you aren’t obeying rules and if you’re not obeying rules in here what will make them think you’ll obey rules out there?” said Raul, recounting a common fear-mongering tactic used by prison guards. To counter these tactics, Raul and his fellow detainees do all things together to ensure that no one is left behind. “We all speak up and when we speak to the officers we go as a group.”
A fundraiser has been launched to support the labor strikers’ efforts as well as an open-letterGovernor Newsom urges California Mandela Act to be passed. bill that “defines solitary confinement as any period of confinement that exceeds 17 hours a day in a cell.”