The last year I've been conducting research on the legality of ICE contracts authorizing private prisons to meet performance goals by paying one dollar per day to the people they're locking up. ICE is not forthcoming about the program and it has not responded to my FOIA requests submitted in the summer and fall of 2013.
Current insights into the program are possible because a couple years ago I received a partial response to a FOIA request documenting ICE and private prison firms paying those in ICE custody one dollar per day. In the wake of that release, reporters have followed up. In fact, there have been intermittent reports on this since 2009, when journalist Susan Caroll described the program in an article in the Houston Chronicle.
The government says the program is legal, but the scope and profits made by the private prison firms go well beyond the program's official description and are shocking. For instance, the 2012 Krome Facility Request for Proposals lists shifts for "detainee workers" alongside those paid prevailing local wages under the Service Contract Act. The labor is a crucial part of running these detention centers.
Note that there are 10 "detainee workers" per breakfast, lunch and dinner, for a total of 30 workers each day, but only eight legally paid employees assigned to the breakfast shift, and just six for lunch. AKAL Security, which runs, Krome, relies exclusively on its resident labor force to serve dinner. In other words, most of its food service is performed by the folks it has locked up; whereas it is paying the outside workers $30 for a couple hours of work, it is paying 30 people for three shifts just $30 total.
This is arguably legal for criminal prisoners. But the U.S. citizens and other residents ICE locks up are in civil detention and not for punishment or rehabilitation. There is a law that authorizes the government paying for this work, 8 USC 1555 (d); it comes out of the World War Two internment camps for civilian "enemy aliens" and prisoners of war . If ICE paid people today at the same level it was paying those locked up in World War Two, the payments would be around $80 per day. (INS was paying people 80 cents a day; the average daily cost in 1943 of detaining each person? One dollar a day.)
Congress has outlawed hiring non-citizens to pick tomatoes for minimum wage. Meanwhile, private prisons are reaping enormous profits by hiring at slaving wages residents, some U.S. citizens, most undocumented, for staffing facilities under contract to the federal government. Providing super profits to a select sector, the program is artificially sustaining the private prison industry and their lobbyists, and thus also distorting federal immigration policy.
The only legal footing ICE has for the program is an ad hoc decision by a federal district court judge in 1990 that was copied and pasted into a Fifth Circuit opinion, Alvarado Guevara v. INS , 902 F.2d 395 (5th Cir., 1990).