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ICE Detainees Protested $1-a-Day Wage. Now They're in Solitary Confinement

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Protesters hold signs outside the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield on June 4, 2020. Detainees Mohamed Mousa and Pedro Figueroa said they were moved to solitary confinement after signing a declaration on June 28, 2022, that they were joining a peaceful work stoppage by ICE detainees who are paid $1 a day to clean dorms and bathrooms. (Tania Bernal/California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance)

Update, 5 p.m. July 11: Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center staff moved Pedro Figueroa out of solitary confinement on July 8, shortly after KQED published this story, according to his attorney. Mohamed Mousa remains in what’s officially known as “administrative segregation,” his attorney said. Both men were found guilty of “inciting or engaging in a demonstration,” charges allegedly related to a monthslong labor strike by immigration detainees seeking higher wages.

A spokesman with The GEO Group, which operates the immigration detention center, declined to confirm the status of the men, and referred questions to ICE. The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Original story, July 8:
Two immigrant detainees have been held in solitary confinement for over a week for backing a labor strike seeking better wages and conditions at the privately run facility where they are held in Bakersfield, the men told KQED.

The alleged retaliation fuels fear and intimidation, according to interviews with the men, their attorneys and advocates.

Mohamed Mousa and Pedro Figueroa said they were moved to a restricted housing unit after signing a declaration on June 28 that they and 15 others were joining a months-long peaceful work stoppage by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees who are paid $1 a day to clean dormitories and bathrooms.

Employees with The GEO Group, a large private prison company that operates the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, transferred the men separately to “administrative segregation” on June 29 and June 30, according to GEO forms viewed by KQED.

“This is what they’re doing to retaliate against people who speak up. This is what they’re doing to intimidate us, which I am intimidated,” Figueroa, 33, said by phone as he sat in what he described as a small, windowless cell detainees refer to as “the hole.”

“I chose not to work and voice my opinion respectfully, and that’s within my right,” added Figueroa, a former incarcerated firefighter who battled the massive August Complex fire in 2020. “I’m trying to understand, what did I do wrong?”

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Documents show GEO staffers charged Figueroa and Mousa with “inciting or engaging in a demonstration” and “conduct that disrupts/interferes with the security or operation of the facility.” Both are labeled as high offenses under ICE guidelines for the detention center.

Figueroa and Mousa said they are kept in their cells — about 6 by 12 feet, with a sink, toilet and a cot — for 22 hours a day or longer.

“It gives you anxiety, raises your stress level. It raises your depression level,” said Mousa, a 41-year-old immigrant from Egypt and former film student in Los Angeles. “It’s a terrible place to be. It’s like they dig a grave and throw you in.”

Upon request, Mousa and Figueroa have access to a phone and an electronic tablet, which guards push through a slit in the room’s metal door. Calls and entertainment, such as music or books, may cost anywhere between $0.03 and $0.11 per minute, the detainees said.

A spokesperson for GEO, which reported total revenues of $551 million in the first quarter of 2022, rebuffed allegations that the detainees are being punished for protesting their working and living conditions.

The strikers, including more than a dozen so-called “housing porters,” are calling for California’s $15 per hour minimum wage, fair treatment by Mesa Verde’s administration and more nutritious meals, among other demands. Some detainees at the facility have refused to work since April 28, but their demands have been largely ignored by GEO and ICE, said Esperanza Cuautle, a community organizer with Pangea Legal Services.

a smiling bald man holds a chainsaw wearing work clothing
Pedro Figueroa poses at the Antelope Fire camp in Siskiyou County in 2021. When he was incarcerated, before his ICE detention, Figueroa won a spot in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's fire camp program, and helped battle wildfires. (Courtesy of the Figueroa family)

The GEO spokesperson repeatedly denied a labor strike is taking place at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, a nearby detention center also operated by the multinational company, arguing that the detained workers are part of a voluntary program. But he declined to answer what demonstration or disruption the detainees were charged with engaging in.

“We continue to strongly reject these baseless allegations,” said the spokesperson for the Florida-based company. “Our facilities, including the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center, provide high-quality services in accordance with all federal contract requirements.

“The Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center is maintained in accordance with all applicable federal sanitation standards, with or without the contributions of Voluntary Work Program participants.”

Mesa Verde currently detains 51 men, according to ICE’s most recent detention statistics. Figueroa and Mousa were arrested by the agency after being released from state prisons for felony convictions, according to court records and their attorneys.

Figueroa, however, felt no choice but to take a plea deal and continues to maintain his innocence, according to his lawyer, Katie Kavanagh, with the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice.

Mousa entered the U.S. lawfully in 2006, and has since been granted protections against deportation by two separate immigration judges, but ICE has appealed, said Kelsey Morales, an immigration attorney with the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office.

Figueroa, the father of four children born in the U.S., was brought to the country as a baby. He grew up in Orange County, according to Kavanagh.

Detainees often opt to work for $1 a day to help their families afford what they describe as costly phone calls and commissary items such as dental floss and tortillas — and to ensure clean living areas, which they say no other janitorial service maintains at Mesa Verde.

In California, immigrant detainees paid $1 a day in privately run facilities are entitled to pursue civil remedy for unpaid wages, and are considered “employees” based on a ruling by a federal judge in 2018, said Christina Cano, a spokesperson with the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees the enforcement of minimum wage laws.

Nationwide, for-profit operators of immigration detention centers commonly use the voluntary work program to do cleaning, maintenance, laundry and other tasks that keep facilities running, saving money on labor costs, according to Eunice Cho, an attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, D.C.

“These private prison companies are profiting by millions of dollars every year by using these volunteer work programs,” Cho said. “Private prison companies have often used punishment to ask for more people to perform labor, doing things like threatening and putting people into solitary confinement, denying food.”

Courts in California, Washington and other states are currently deciding whether these labor practices constitute illegal forced labor or minimum wage law violations, and whether companies like GEO are accountable, according to Cho.

Moreover, immigrants who are detained by the federal government while they fight deportation — a civil, not criminal proceeding — have the right to freedom of speech, she added.

“It’s long settled that the First Amendment prohibits the use of solitary confinement as punishment for speaking up against conditions of confinement in prisons and detention centers,” Cho said.

It’s unclear whether ICE agrees. ICE did not return requests for comment on the rule, the labor strike or retaliation allegations.

But the reports of potentially exploitative work and retaliation at Mesa Verde are “alarming,” said a spokesperson for U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, D-Calif.

“Our office is working to gather additional information and ensure there is proper oversight,” she said in a statement.

Likewise, South Bay Congressmember Zoe Lofgren, D-San José, who chairs the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, said she has “long been concerned” about immigration authorities’ use of for-profit prisons and conditions for detainees.

“These new allegations are troubling, yet sadly unsurprising,” said Lofgren, who led 22 Democratic colleagues in urging the Biden administration to close three detention centers in California, including one operated by GEO. “I take these allegations seriously and expect a complete and thorough investigation.”

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