July 25, 2019

Senator Warren Investigates Allegations that Private Prison Contractors Withhold Basic Necessities, Use Threat of Solitary Confinement to Coerce Detainees into "Voluntary" Work Programs

Senator Warren also investigates private detention contractor's potential violations of U.S. securities laws

Text of the Letter to DHS IG (PDF) | Text of the Letter to SEC (PDF)

Washington, DC - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) today sent a letter to Jennifer Costello, Acting Inspector General (IG) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), requesting that the IG conduct an investigation into the use of solitary confinement and other punishments to coerce participation in "voluntary" work programs at federal and federally-contracted immigration detention facilities, and the role of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies, procedures, and guidance in such practices.

The GEO Group, Inc. (GEO) and CoreCivic, the two largest for-profit, federally-contracted prison companies, which ICE contracts to house immigrant detainees along the U.S. southern border, face several lawsuits alleging the use of punishment as a tool to coerce detainees into voluntary work programs. A 2014 class action lawsuit filed in Colorado has accused GEO of forcing tens of thousands of detainees, specifically through the threat of solitary confinement, to work for $1 per day. A 2017 lawsuit in California alleges that GEO forced detainees into so-called voluntary labor programs by depriving them of basic necessities. And a 2018 lawsuit against CoreCivic in Georgia alleges a similar "deprivation scheme" as a means of forcing labor, including by withholding food, clothing, hygiene products, and phone calls to loved ones.

Such behavior would appear to violate ICE policies and forced labor laws under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. However, in a private letter to ICE officials seeking assistance in the lawsuits, GEO's Senior Vice President for Business Development David Venturella asserted that the use of solitary confinement to coerce participation in voluntary work programs is directly sanctioned under ICE policies.

"GEO's private claim that ICE policies require, recommend, or allow the use of solitary confinement to coerce participation in a 'voluntary' work program is alarming," wrote Senator Warren. "Despite writing to ICE about the use of these practices nearly one year ago, I have yet to receive any information from the agency about these practices."

To help protect the health and safety of detainees, and to determine if potentially illegal behavior is being endorsed, encouraged or allowed by ICE regulations and standards, Senator Warren asked the Acting DHS IG to conduct an investigation into the matter.

Newly-released private communications also suggest that GEO Group officials made misleading statements or omissions, potentially in violation of U.S. securities laws, about the costs associated with these ongoing lawsuits. GEO Executives privately estimated that the lawsuits would cost between $15 and $20 million in potential damages, and stated that the cost of the legal fees represented "a potentially catastrophic risk to GEO's ability to honor its contracts with the federal government," but indicated little or no concern about these lawsuits in several years of earnings calls and public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Senator Warren sent a second letter today to SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, requesting that the SEC open an investigation into whether GEO may have violated securities laws by making these kinds of false or misleading statements or omissions of fact about the impact of the series of lawsuits against the company, and provide her staff with a briefing.

Senator Warren opposes the use of for-profit facilities to detain migrants and advocates for the safety and well-being of migrant families.

The two letters she sent today are the latest in a series of letters investigating unsafe conditions and mistreatment of migrants at privately-run detention centers. In August 2018, she joined Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in a letter to then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen raising concerns about abusive practices used by private prisons to coerce prisoners into participating in "voluntary" work programs.

In November 2018, Warren questioned GEO Group and CoreCivic about their compliance with federal immigration detention standards following a DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report and revealed that neither the companies nor their private auditor, Nakamoto Group, have taken responsibility for egregious failures identified by the DHS OIG. Her investigation also revealed an ongoing dispute between the Nakamoto Group and the OIG about the quality of Nakamoto's inspections.

In May, she began an investigation of the private detention accreditation system following widespread reports of mismanagement and poor conditions for detainees. Following reports that two additional children had died in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Senator Warren demanded answers about conditions that lead to the deaths of five children in the span of six months.