Immigrants allege unsafe conditions at California facility

California regulators last month fined private prison operator GEO Group $104,510 after detained migrant workers at central California’s Golden State Annex complained of unsafe conditions, including a lack of protective gear and proper training while they were in prison Facility cleaned for $1 a day.

The investigation by the California Department of Occupational Safety and Health, known as CAL/OSHA, found six violations of state regulations by the appealed company. The agency’s recognition of inmates as workers could pave the way for future labor rights battles at other prisons in the state.

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

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

The complaint 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 facility managers’ failures to provide personal protective equipment, maintain sanitized workspaces, prevent the spread of COVID-19, and prevent workplace-related illnesses and injuries.

Inmates reported routinely wiping black mold from shower walls at the facility, seeing black dust spurting out of air vents, and using cleaning solutions without instructions, leaving them wondering if they were being exposed to high levels of chemicals. 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 companies, manages 15 detention facilities on behalf of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE declined to comment on the fines levied by CAL/OSHA.

One of the complainants, who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said he worked as a cleaner at the facility for about two months before inmates in seven of the eight dormitories collectively decided to quit their job early last year set.

Eight workers in each dorm were working eight-hour shifts, he said. They cleaned the entire dormitory every morning and evening – toilets, lounge and living quarters, with additional spot cleaning as needed.

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

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

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

He said detained workers had asked officials at the facility to raise their wages, but were told GEO Group’s policies do not allow them to be paid more than $1 a day. Inmates in one dormitory have continued the volunteer work program, he said, and GEO Group hired four people to clean the seven other dormitories.

In 2021, a federal jury in Tacoma, Wash., found that GEO Group’s $1 a day salary violated the state minimum wage law and ordered the company to allocate $17.3 million in back pay to former inmates to count. GEO Group argued in an appeals court that the recent decision to lift California’s ban on private immigrant detention centers also prevents Washington from requiring the company to pay a minimum wage to incarcerated workers because it would constitute government interference in federal operations, Reuters reported .

Also in 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency found that GEO Group had violated federal law by misusing a chemical disinfectant that caused nosebleeds, burning eyes and nausea in detainees.

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

The largest fine imposed on GEO Group was for failure to establish and maintain “effective written procedures to reduce employee risk of exposure to aerosol-borne diseases,” including COVID-19 – CAL/OSHA violations labeled ” willfully-serious”. GEO Group has also been cited for repeatedly failing to provide investigators with documentation in a timely manner.

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

“I hope this will enable detained workers to speak up and report health and safety violations,” she said. Immigrants allege unsafe conditions at California facility

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