In an unprecedented case, a federal judge ruled Monday that a private prison company can be sued under federal laws prohibiting what amounts to slave labor.

The ruling allows current and former detainees at a privately-run immigrant detention center to join a class-action suit alleging that the contractor running the prison forced detainees to work for low or no wages, threatening solitary confinement for those who refused.

GEO Group, one of the nation’s largest private prison companies, runs facilities in Colorado and in Texas. Betsy Woodruff with the Daily Beast reports as many as 60,000 current and former detainees could act as plaintiffs in the case.

GEO Group and other large private prison companies get a significant portion of their business through contracts with the Department of Homeland Security to detain immigrants who may be in the country illegally and are awaiting immigration court proceedings.

Detainees haven’t been convicted of crimes, but some are awaiting criminal proceedings. Detention is civil, not criminal, Woodruff says.

Woodruff says 65 percent of immigrant detainees are in privately-run centers.

The lawsuit comes as the Trump administration released an executive order to expand the number of immigrants held in detention centers, which Woodruff says could further expand the number of immigrants held in privately-run prison centers.

The lawsuit’s attorneys are representing two groups of plaintiffs. One group voluntarily engaged in work at detention centers for about $1 a day. The other group allege they were involuntarily coerced into working.

Plaintiffs are alleging that the GEO Group is violating laws that prevent unjust enrichment of companies and are pointing to breaches in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

The GEO Group denies all allegations, saying no person was put in solitary confinement.

U.S. District Judge John Kane ruled that the class-action lawsuit can move forward and that just because people may not have been put in solitary confinement doesn’t mean the threat of solitary confinement wasn’t there.

The lawsuit is significant in terms of what a ruling could mean for private prison companies, Woodruff says.

“It suggests that the detainees who are held in these facilities might potentially have more rights than the companies have been assuming when it comes to how they treat those detainees,” she says. “If it goes through and if the plaintiffs win all the way up, then it’s likely the result of this lawsuit will be that private companies have to spend more on their detention.”

If this is the case, detention could become more expensive and begin to cut into private companies’ profit margins, Woodruff says. Those costs would ultimately be passed on to taxpayers, who will have to decide on whether they want to spend more money on detentions.

Woodruff says Monday’s ruling means that the suit can move on to the discovery phase.

“We’ll be able to go to discovery and get a lot more information to get more of the backstory of how these detention centers run,” she says.

Written by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

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  • Susan March 1, 2017 at 8:19 pm

    These people should participate in cleaning up after themselves, taking care of their living areas. This CASE is ridiculous.

  • Miss Lee March 1, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    It seems to me that many people posting comments here did not actually read the article. Or perhaps they have failed to understand what they did read. per the article “Detainees haven’t been convicted of crimes, but some are awaiting criminal proceedings. Detention is civil, not criminal,” These detention centers are run on a for profit basis. Private Prison Companies are in business to make money. The more people that are detained waiting for deportation the more money the Private Prison companies make. This is how America works Rich politicians pass legislation that make their rich friends even richer. Private Prison companies hire lobbyists to convince politicians to pass laws to detain more and more undocumented people. You should look for other news articles that discuss this subject if you want to learn more about Private Prison companies and the money they make running detention centers.

  • Anonymous March 1, 2017 at 3:01 pm

    A prison is a very dangerous place and idle hands get into trouble. These detainees are there to rehabilitate and hopefully learn a skill other than going out and committing more crimes. They should not be getting food, clothing, recreation and a roof over their heads and not have to earn it. After all people on the streets have to work for these things, It’s about respect and paying your way in life.

  • EBONY March 1, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    It should say “Paid” not “Page”

  • Kim Todd March 1, 2017 at 11:55 am

    (1) Many have not been convicted yet-they are awaiting trial and thus are presumed innocent. (2) Jails and prisons are not to enrich the jailors. These private jail companies charge the American people and then profit from these detainees’ work.

    • Kaden Ferretti March 1, 2017 at 1:00 pm

      Boy have you got it wrong. In prison means they have already gone thru the judicial system. They have been convicted of a crime. Why do they have to be paid minimum wages when it is already costing taxpayers a great amount of money to house them? If the private prison companies can smartly make money, let them. They are dealing with convicted criminals. They didn’t care about civil rights when they committed their crimes. How are they above their victims with the claim of rights???

      • Miss Lee March 1, 2017 at 8:19 pm

        Did you read the article? It actually states the following….”Detainees haven’t been convicted of crimes, but some are awaiting criminal proceedings. Detention is civil, not criminal,” The article is about Immigrant detention centers run by Private for profit prison companies. It is not about lawfully arrested and convicted criminals serving time in prison.

  • William Dedee March 1, 2017 at 10:04 am

    I think the judges in this country have way to much leeway in their judicial decisions, and need to be reigned in. These individuals are behind bars because they have committed a crime against society and need to be there. Prison is not a country club, like they have become today, but a place to serve time and reflect on their actions against society that got them there in the first place.

    • Anonymous March 1, 2017 at 11:55 am

      Detainees are people who haven’t been to court yet. It has not yet been determined whether or not a crime has been committed.