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Working for $1 a Day


The working conditions in Batavia and other detention centers across the United States place stringent expectations upon detainees. They are not given autonomy, and their bodies are simply used to perform labor. Detainees are not treated as autonomous human beings but rather profitable entities that can be worked beyond the confines of a legal and just employer-employee relationship.


Ingrid writes in many of her letters about the conditions she faces; she is given no choice but to work. She writes, on one particular Saturday, “We worked from 1 p.m. until 4:30. They took us back for the count and then at 4:50 went to dinner. Then we returned to paint at 5:40, until 8:30.” The number of hours she is forced to work every single day depends solely on how much work the guards decide needs to be done. She and other detainees have no sense of a beginning or end to the daily work schedule. 

Furthermore, when Ingrid decides she wants a break, she is met with extreme pushback. She writes, “On Saturday, we worked from 1 p.m. until 4:30. They took us back for the count and then at 4:50 went to dinner.  Then we returned to paint at 5:40, until 8:30. I told them, I'm not going to work on Sunday, I'm going to rest. That bothered them because they wanted me to keep painting, but I said "no," I'm going to rest, That bothered them because they wanted me to keep painting, but I told them "no," and I rested.” As Ingrid exemplifies here, it is a struggle to simply be granted a break. If Ingrid chose to take more breaks, she would not be paid, and therefore would be unable to purchase the things she needs at the commissary. It is a vicious cycle of forced labor, and detainees have no bargaining power whatsoever.

Ironically, ICE officials have attempted to frame the detention working programs as positive for detainees. In their Voluntary Work Program notice, they suggest that “the negative impacts of confinement shall be reduced through decreased idleness, improved morale, and fewer disciplinary incidents.” While ICE is trying to frame these working programs as morale boosters, the information we have gathered from Ingrid suggests the opposite. Detainees are struggling, unhappy, and forced into these working conditions. 


Law professor Jacqueline Stevens, writing in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal describes the conditions that detainees across America are forced to comply with. One aspect of labor conditions in detention appears in the amount of hours detainees are forced to work. Steven notes that because the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) often is “lacking the staffing necessary for their contractual commitments to keep the facility clean and maintained,” they force detainees to work beyond the confines of their shifts in the facilities. One detainee, Robinson Martinez, emphasizes these conditions and echoes much of what we have heard from Ingrid. Martinez, working shifts cleaning bathrooms and other areas of the facility, speaks to how strongly the guards disregard the implications of their unregulated actions. One example appears in Martinez’s cleaning of a “particularly difficult path of mildew that had seemingly been there for years." This patch of mildew, Martinez shared with the guards, would not come off with the cleaning supplies he had been provided. Also, as “he explained that the company needed a specialized janitorial service and equipment for the task, he was told he would be fired." Under these conditions, when detainees attempt to advocate for themselves, they are met with a harsh denial of humanity.

Finally, detainees are paid very low wages for their work in detention. Detention centers bring in astronomical profits on the backs of detainees. In Ingrid’s letter, she depicts just how little power detainees are given in these labor situations. They are given $1 per day for their work, but there is never a guarantee that they will actually be paid. She writes, “They told me that they would put money in my commissary as payment for the work. Four weeks ago, I was able to buy one soup, one lotion, one toothpaste, one body soap, one sweater, and one pair of pants for the work I did then. But now I have done three weeks of painting without being paid anything.” There is no reliable system here. When she does the work that is forced upon her, she expects to be compensated for it, and oftentimes they cannot even follow through with this low wage. This is exemplified in the Georgetown law journal, as while the detainees are paid $1 a day for eight hours or more of work, the corporations are making millions. For example, the Corrections Corporations of America brought in “an estimated $30 to $77 million” in 2012. They are able to see such a great profit as they are saving in labor costs by paying these shockingly low wages. While “these wages should be going into the pockets of ICE facility residents or those in the employment sectors,” they are instead falling into the hands of the corporations that run the detention centers.  

Working conditions


Drawing from a direct interview with Ingrid, we were able to mentally portray a picture of what kind of work conditions the detainees are subjected to. In Batavia, it is virtually impossible to get by and have access to basic human needs without being coerced into physical labor. For example, Ingrid recalls a specific instance in which a fellow detainee, Patricia, asks one of the guards whether it’s mandatory to work for the facility. She asks, (2:16) “Hey is it an obligation to work? The TV, we can watch it without having to work. I have the right to watch TV.” A lieutenant then responds to her by saying, “If you do not help, if you don’t clean, there is no television, no tablet, no telephone, nor commissary.” Not only has she been denied access to the basic necessities, she also says how “If we don’t clean, they will close the part where the microwaves are so we cannot use the microwaves. We can’t make food, we can’t cook. And they will cut the internet so that we cannot receive calls or can’t send messages.” This is an inherent problematic, gross violation of human rights, even more so considering the fact that Patricia knew the supposed rules at Batavia mandating detainees to work were never official or even legal, according to the “blue book.” 


Ingrid recalls the moment when Patricia tries to stand up to the guards by pointing to the blue book as evidence that they were not required to work: “Well, the lady Patricia came and told me ‘Ingrid, bring me the book, there is a blue book where it says that it is not an obligation to work to have access to the television, to the microwave…’” (2:16)


Unfortunately, we were not able to hear from Ingrid on what happened with Patricia, but we know that her claim is definitely true. According to ICE’s own guidelines on their voluntary work program, they state that: “Where available, detainees may participate voluntarily in any facility work program.” Even though ICE’s work policy does state that all labor is voluntary per se, inmates are essentially left without choice, especially since they are not given access to basic human necessities.

An incident Ingrid discusses in the “Elizabeth Letters” illustrates ICE’s nefarious, dishonest workaround of the Fair Labor Standards Act and OSHA safety regulations. She writes, “Now that I think about it, I had started to feel sick when I was painting the stairs up to the second level of rooms, there were two men cleaning the bathroom, using some kind of really strong liquid cleaner. I started to feel very dizzy, so I tried to finish up quickly and sit down. I started to have a headache, and I could not stand the odor, and I tried to cover my nose with my shirt, The official who was on duty asked me if I wanted a mask, and I said yes, so he gave me and one other woman masks. When I took off the mask, someone said--it is bloody! The official gave me some napkins to clean myself. I felt sick until the night time. Right now, I am still taking the pills because I am still a little dizzy and have a slight headache.” Ingrid’s letter demonstrates Batavia’s blatant disregard for detainees’ safety and well-being. Not only are they subject to potential physical harm, but also given no human sympathy whatsoever. Moreover, Ingrid recalls a moment in which she attempts to appeal to the guards that she should be given a break considering the amount of effort she has put in her work. She writes, “We are working so hard, but still the officials give us a hard time. One of them told me you are not doing a good job, and I asked her, why, because I didn't really understand. Then the official started to laugh at me and told me to get back to work.” Anyone with a clear conscience would and should be rightfully outraged by this heinous treatment of detainees. We will let these powerful words speak for themselves.


ICE promises that under their Voluntary Work Program, “Detainee working conditions shall comply with all applicable federal, state and local work safety laws and regulations”. Ingrid clearly has not had these experiences. 


Furthermore, Ingrid tells us: (1:15) “Xiomara and I wash the bathrooms on the days Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and the days that we don’t wash the shower it is our turn to sweep and mop. Then, practically, we do many things, to have access to the things we need. And even so yes, apart from exploiting us, with the work and all of that, umm, they don’t let us watch TV.” She also makes it clear that there is no hope for any sort of reform, considering filing a complaint of any sort is pretty much impossible, as she says, (2:16) “In reality, you cannot do anything.” From this interview with Ingrid, it’s evident that the American carceral system manipulates the detainees into forced labor in order to capitalize their inability to seek help from the outside world. What ICE is doing is a truly cruel and inhumane act of injustice and we must mobilize to put an end to this never-ending chain of migrants being susceptible to psychological and physical abuse. We must put ourselves at a better standard than the current state of affairs at detention facilities. We will continue to strive for progressive change on a larger scale - one by one - until there is a day in which everyone is treated equally, regardless of documentation status.

“Voluntary” Work


The conditions in immigration detention centers are inhumane and violate basic human rights. Detainees are forced to work in unacceptable conditions for unacceptables of wages of just $1 per day, often working under implied threat of losing access to basic privileges. The Immigration and Custom Enforcement work program in federal detention centers violates human rights and federal law. US Federal Code explicitly prohibits conditions of forced labor. The federal law (18 U.S.C. § 1589) states:

Whoever knowingly provides or obtains the labor or services of a person--

(1) by threats of serious harm to, or physical restraint against, that person or another person;

(2) by means of any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause the person to believe that, if the person did not perform such labor or services, that person or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint; or

(3) by means of the abuse or threatened abuse of law or the legal process,

shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.


Forced labor is clearly and definitively impermissible in the United States, and yet, private “security firms” GEO Group, CCA, and numerous others have employed millions of refugees and migrants detained in ICE facilities at wages of a dollar per day in conditions that many have described as forced labor.

The realities of immigration detention in the United States have created a horrifying and shocking dynamic between those held inside of these federal detention facilities like the one in Batavia, New York that requires consideration of how federal agencies like ICE, through private companies managing these detention facilities, violate federal law. The “Voluntary Work Program” as defined by ICE is intended to be voluntary. However, as reports from Ingrid and numerous others demonstrate, the conditions of labor in detention centers performed by detained migrants constitutes forced labor. ICE suggests that “detainees shall be able to volunteer for work assignments but otherwise shall not be required to work.” As Ingrid testifies, failure to comply with orders to work result with withholding privileges, but also rights. Work is forced through fear of retaliation and through withholding of privileges like TV and tablet access that are migrants sole connections to the outside world, including communication with family and legal counsel in the context of COVID-19. Additionally, access to even the incredibly inadequate wages of $1 per day often provide the only means of making purchases through the center’s commissary, which is the only way to purchase items like clothing, soap, and other necessities.


Federal code is not the only law the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “Voluntary Work Program” violates. A recent lawsuit brought against the private corporation ICE contracts with for services in the Batavia facility, Akima Global Services (AGS), claims that the work program that guarantees compensation only of $1 daily is unconstitutional and fails to adhere to minimum wage policy. Workers Justice Center of New York, the organization behind the filing, has spoken out against the injustice and illegal nature of the $1 per day wages in immigration detention centers. Detainees are paid far below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and often work for food, or to avoid retaliation from guards. In one of her letters, Ingrid describes the exploitative conditions of labor in the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility.


“There is a job that no one wants to do: put up the chairs and take them down before and after every meal, and sweep the floor after each meal. They are very heavy. To do this three times a day for $1 is exploitation! Each table has four chairs, and there are 17 tables, and you have to open them up and close them down. So it's a problem now because no one wants to do the job for $1. I have heard that the officials are threatening us -- to take away the telephone, the TV, the tablets, and the commissary if no one does the work. This isn't fair, but what can I do?” 


Most of the women Ingrid is being held in detention with work 5 days each week to earn just $5 total. She describes some of the jobs performed daily by the women in the detention center for $1 per day.


“Virginia has the job of cleaning the shower two times a day, but she really only does it once a day. Elia cleans the tables. Martha cleans the microwave and the telephones. Patricia sweeps and mops the floor--one day above, and the next day below. Dora cleans the bathroom above. Jennifer and Jessica hand out the plates at mealtime and put the plates back in the cart when we are done eating. Delia runs the vacuum cleaner. Ester, Nicolette, Judith, and Sevan leave at 1 p.m. to cook and return at 7 p.m. Shantal works in the laundry; she goes to work at 8 or 8:15 and returns at 9 or 9:05. We all work five days a week and rest two days, so we can make $5 a week.”


*Note that Ester, Nicoletter, Judith, and Sevan work 6 hours five days a week, but still earn just $5 for the entire week. Their 30 hours of work at $1 per day works out to about 16 cents per hour or just 2% of federal minimum wage of $7.50 per hour.  


With these low wages, migrants are forced to try to make up for the lack of access to basic necessities. Access to sanitary conditions and soap is a right human under typical circumstances, but undoubtedly doubly essentially during the global COVID-19 pandemic. When asked about her access to soap, Ingrid described...

This relationship is servitude, not voluntary labor. Migrants often need money to purchase warm clothes or shoes, or perhaps do not speak English and cannot convey their own concerns about their working conditions. Ingrid’s experience of requesting a bar of soap or a t-shirt in order to avoid having to purchase these expensive items from the detention center commissary:

She feels unable to ask for soap because the guards fail to provide it to her when she asks in Spanish, even if they will give it to others who ask in English. The struggle and humiliation of requesting for access to a basic human right to sanitary conditions has forced Ingrid to earn money to be able to purchase these items.

Migrants held in ICE detention facilities only access to certain human rights like soap and clothing is through their labor. The nature of the relation of “physical control over the party receiving work orders” indicates a dynamic of servitude in which migrants are held in detention facilities against their will and not provided with basic necessities through any means other than any extremely low wage labor. This represents a complete lack of respect for the integrity and humanity of migrants who are commodified through capitalists systems of detention. How can their labor be considered voluntary or optional when migrants are caged and working simply to gain access to basic human rights?


Through Ingrid’s interview, it is possible to see the human rights violations present, as Alice and Harry already discussed. The deplorable working conditions, as well as the low wages are unjust and exploit immigrants who are unable to return to their home countries. Although we have already established that the low wages in detention centers would be illegal if implemented to US citizens, these vulnerable detainees have no other choices -- their health and well being is at stake. The concept of being held in detention is already inequitable, and to institute even further violations of necessary rights -- such as access to soap for cleanliness -- is uncalled for. 


Thus, we have launched this Free Ingrid campaign in order to raise awareness about the happenings inside detention centers, but most importantly to free Ingrid from detention. We urge you to become involved in whatever capacity is most accessible-- whether that is donating or sharing Ingrid’s story to be seen by more people. We hope that putting pressure on the system will result in a positive outcome for Ingrid. Thank you for taking the time to read this and become educated about an oftentimes-overlooked issue.

By Natalie Sullivan Baker, Sarah Hughner, Harry Kwon, and Alice Kenny

“The soap coasts about $1.70 – the soap! So, it costs about $1.70, and one earns like a dollar a day. So then to buy one bar of soap, I practically have to work all day.”

“Well yes, the reality is yes, they force me, they force us to work. If we don’t work, we can’t use the tablet, we can’t watch TV, we can’t ask for commissary, we cannot even use the telephones” 

“I need to buy it, honestly. I need to buy soap from the commissary because they give it reluctantly if you go ask for it. I don’t go ask, I’m going to be sincere, I don’t go ask for soap there. I go to the commissary.”