Immigrants allege unsafe conditions at California facility

California regulators imposed $104,510 in fines on private prison operator GEO Group last month after immigrant workers detained at the Golden State Annex in central California complained of unsafe conditions, including ‘a lack of protective gear and proper training, while cleaning the facility for $1 a day. .

The investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as CAL/OSHA, found six state code violations by the company, which has appealed. The agency’s recognition of detainees as workers could pave the way for future struggles for labor rights at other state detention facilities.

GEO Group spokesman Christopher Ferreira declined to comment on the allegations, citing the pending appeal.

“GEO is proud of its extraordinary record taking unprecedented steps to protect inmates and staff during the pandemic,” Ferreira wrote in a statement.

The lawsuit was filed by Immigrant Defense Advocates and the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice on behalf of several detainees whose names have been kept confidential. They alleged safety violations, including failures by facility administrators to provide personal protective equipment, maintain sanitary workspaces, prevent the spread of COVID-19, and protect against illness and disease. work-related injuries.

Inmates alleged that they routinely wiped black mold off the walls of the facility’s showers, saw black dust escaping from air vents, and used cleaning solutions without instructions, leaving them to wonder they were exposed to high concentrations of chemicals. The complaints were ignored, according to the complaint, and the dangers were not addressed.

Florida-based GEO Group, one of the nation’s largest for-profit prison corporations, operates 15 detention centers on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE declined to comment on the fines imposed by CAL/OSHA.

One of the complainants, who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said he had worked as a cleaner at the facility for about two months before inmates in seven of the eight dormitories collectively decided to stop working at the beginning of last year.

Eight workers in each dorm had eight-hour shifts, he said. They cleaned the entire dorm – restroom, day room, and living quarters – every morning and evening, with additional spot cleaning as needed.

The plaintiff had been transferred to the Golden State Annex from a state prison, where he said he worked for 39 cents an hour, three times what GEO Group paid him per shift, according to the complaint. . Tablet video calls to loved ones quickly add up to 5 cents per minute, he noted.

“They made it look like they were doing us a favor by giving us a job,” he said in a phone interview from the facility.

The complainant said the workers shared a single pair of rubber boots and a bottle of floor cleaner, glass cleaner and disinfectant. When these bottles were used by others, he was told to clean up with shampoo. He said cleaning showers without proper footwear gave him a fungal infection.

He said the detained workers asked facility officials to raise their wages, but were told that GEO Group policy did not allow them to pay more than a dollar a day. Inmates in one dorm continued the volunteer work program, he said, and the GEO group hired four people to clean the other seven dorms.

In 2021, a federal jury in Tacoma, Washington found GEO Group’s $1-a-day wage violated state minimum wage law and ordered the company to provide former inmates with 17.3 million dollars in salary arrears. GEO Group argued in an appeals court that the recent ruling overturning California’s ban on private immigration detention centers also prevents Washington from requiring the company to pay detained workers minimum wage, because it would would constitute state interference in federal operations, Reuters reported.

Also in 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency found the GEO Group violated federal law by abusing a chemical disinfectant that caused nosebleeds, eye burns and nausea in inmates.

In response to the complaint, CAL/OSHA investigators interviewed inmates and inspected the Golden State Annex last year. On Dec. 15, the agency cited GEO Group for failing to provide free access to emergency eyewash equipment and for failing to provide workers with effective information and training on hazardous materials.

The largest fine levied against GEO Group was for failing to establish and maintain “effective written procedures to reduce the risk of employee exposure to aerosol-borne diseases, including COVID-19 – CAL/OSHA labeled violations” Voluntary-Serious”. GEO Group was also cited for repeatedly failing to provide records to investigators in a timely manner.

Lisa Knox, legal director of the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, said inmates recently complained to her of retaliation after guards removed extra items including pillows, clothing and bedding, dormitories. She sees the CAL/OSHA citations as a big win for inmates.

“I hope this will allow detained workers to speak up and report health and safety violations,” she said.

Los Angeles Times

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