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  • Jane Juffer

Working for $1 a day

Updated: Oct 25

This letter is the first in which Elisabeth describes what it is like to work for wages in detention. People can "choose" to work for $1 a day, but the program is hardly a choice for people who have no other option for earning even this small amount for their commissary funds. These funds are the only way people can afford to make phone calls to loved ones--hence the only way to connect with the outside world. The so-called "Voluntary Work Program" allows detention centers to save huge amounts of money because people inside do the work, such as cleaning and painting, that would otherwise be contracted out to local people. Based on extensive research and information gained through the Freedom of Information Act, Law Professor Jacqueline Stevens documents many other abuses in her article in the Georgetown Law Journal, "One Dollar Per Day: The Slaving Wages of Immigration Jail." She concludes that the program violates the Fair Labor Standards Act as well as OSHA safety regulations. Furthermore , detained people are often punished and threatened if they fail to perform the work assigned to them. Elisabeth's story illustrates all of these abuses.



February 23, 2020


Hi! I hope you're well. Remember how I told you when you visited that I have been working, painting the units? 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. On Friday, an official in a white shirt arrived and told six of us women that we would soon begin painting again. After lunch, they took us to the unit A1/C1, and we started to pain.t At last, I was able to return to the unit where I have some peace. I closed the door and no one bothered me. But on Friday, we began to paint the unit where I felt very bad. We went there at about 1:30 and continued until 4:40. We had dinner at 5:10 and then returned to paint again at 5:45. It was then that I started to feel very sick and began to vomit. They took me to the medical office where I saw a nurse, and she gave me some acetaminophen and told me to drink a lot of water and get some rest.


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 were there 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.


I hope that tomorrow they give me my commissary because I really need it. I think that they will because there is only one unit left to paint. Well, unless they take us to paint the courts. 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 that wanted me to keep painting, but I told them "no," and I rested. The other five women did work on Sunday. On Monday, I began painting again at 1 p.m, until 4:20, and then again from 6 p.m to 8:30. I told the official who speaks Spanish that I hope we could finish the job on Tuesday, but also that it would be hard to get everything done by then because only three of us are really working hard.


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.


Well, I've talked so much about this, I've probably bored you! Take care of yourself, and I send you lots of hugs.


Elisabeth.


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