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Former immigrant detainees sue Illinois sheriff, claiming they were illegally forced into labor while housed in jail

By Robert McCoppin

CHICAGO — Aleksey Ruderman swept and mopped the floors of McHenry County jail, wiped tables, and cleaned the showers and the toilets — all against his will and without being paid a dime, he says.

Ruderman, a Jewish immigrant from Belarus, was held at the jail on civil immigration charges from 2016 to 2019. He was detained after serving five years in prison in a fatal drunken driving case. He said he deeply regretted the incident and since has changed his life.

While facing possible deportation, he said, he was forced to help clean the jail on the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashana, in violation of his religious beliefs.

“It was terrible what happened,” Ruderman said about his criminal case. “I feel terrible about that. … But now I’m talking about a completely different matter. I don’t think it’s right to make someone do something a person doesn’t want to do. It’s not about myself, this is about people who were wrongfully treated before they got deported, who don’t speak English, who don’t know about how the laws work in this country. This is wrong.”

Now Ruderman is part of a lawsuit accusing jail officials of forcing immigrant detainees to do labor against their will and paying them nothing.

Sheriff’s Chief James Popovits said deputies didn’t force the detainees to do anything; they worked of their own will.

“We don’t have any forced labor,” he said. “It’s all their choice.”

The federal suit is part of a wave of litigation nationwide claiming that immigrant detainees were made to work in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibits labor compelled by force or physical restraint.

Previously, many of the suits were filed against private contractors such as CoreCivic and GEO Group, in some cases claiming unjust enrichment or violations of minimum wage. The suits have had mixed results.

In this case, the complaint is lodged against the county and Sheriff Bill Prim. State law ended county detentions of immigrants in February. But the suit seeks more than $5 million in damages, as well as class-action status, to represent all former immigrant detainees held in the jail in the past 10 years.

Labor behinds bars is common in the United States. The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, allows both as punishment for crime.

The county jail does have jobs that paid inmates and detainees $3 a day, including in the kitchen and laundry, and on road crews, officials said.

Chief of Corrections Michael Clesceri also wrote in an email:

“All inmates and detainees are responsible for doing their part to keep their cells and dayroom areas clean. The common dayroom cleanups are rotated daily by cells. Inmates and detainees are not paid for this function however. It is spelled out in the inmate handbook under housing unit rules and regulations. These are not considered jobs, rather a shared responsibility by all inmates/detainees to maintain a safe and healthy clean living environment.”

The Illinois Department of Corrections reported that roughly 25,000 of its inmates get paid for work, making on average about $200 a year. They work in food service or learn skills such as welding for an average of $1.30 an hour. Almost two-thirds of people incarcerated in federal prisons had jobs there as of a 2014 survey, making from 23.5 cents to $1.15 an hour.

Inmates who participate in jobs programs have fewer repeat offenses and are more likely to get jobs after their release, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and federal work programs have waiting lists for participation.

Critics have equated some prison work programs to modern-day slavery, and have called instead for better real-world job training and rehabilitation programs. They have particularly derided privately run prisons that profit off inmate labor.

But the 13th Amendment exception applies to those convicted of crimes. That’s why the recent spate of lawsuits alleging forced labor has focused instead on immigrant detainees, who generally are accused of civil violations, not crimes, and are awaiting a court ruling on whether they could stay in the United States legally or would face deportation.

Since 2003, McHenry County had a contract to hold detainees for what is now U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The federal government paid $95 per day per detainee, with an average of 240 inmates a day from 2016 to 2021, which generated more than $41 million, according to the suit.

Despite calls from protesters to end the practice of incarcerating immigrants, the county board voted in 2021 to continue the practice, arguing that it generated revenue and kept detainees closer to home than if they were held out of state.

But state lawmakers passed the Illinois Way Forward Act, which prohibited such contracts. Both McHenry and Kankakee County jails stopped holding detainees by February, though McHenry is appealing the issue in court. ICE released some of the detainees, and transferred the rest to detention facilities in other states.

Six detainees are named as plaintiffs in the suit. Some have been released, some have returned to the countries they left and at least one, Ruderman, has won a court ruling allowing him to stay in the country.

Ruderman came to the United States in 2001 at age 19, under the Lautenberg Amendment, which made it easier for some people in former parts of the Soviet Union to emigrate. Ruderman, the son of a political activist in Belarus, said he was trying to get away from antisemitic persecution by neo-Nazi and pro-Russian forces in his country.

In 2008, Ruderman was charged in Wisconsin with driving drunk and striking and killing a 40-year-old woman as she walked along a road at 2 a.m. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, but had a prior driving under the influence case and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Ruderman testified of his remorse for what happened, and that he was haunted by nightmares about what happened. A rabbi testified that Ruderman has changed his life and strives to be a better person.

But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security detained Ruderman and initiated removal proceedings against him, and he spent several years in civil detention. Last year, an immigration judge ruled that Ruderman was eligible to stay on humanitarian grounds and to keep his family together.

Now, Ruderman is living in Milwaukee with his wife and stepchildren, while the federal government appeals the decision. Like many detainees, Ruderman said, he just wants to work and stay in the country with his family.

While in jail, he said, if detainees refused to work, guards threatened to report them as being noncompliant, which could hurt their immigration cases, he said.

McHenry County correctional officers “recruit” inmates for its inmate worker program in the kitchen, laundry room and custodial services, the sheriff’s website states. The jail also has a road crew program in which inmates pick up trash or do road maintenance. “The Worker Program is a means of positive and productive interaction for the inmates and can help them with job opportunities upon release,” the sheriff’s website states.

One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Raphael Janove, said that some detainees were paid a nominal fee to work in the kitchen, but the lawsuit deals with only those who were forced to work without pay.

Regardless of the circumstances of each detainee’s case, Janove said, forced labor is inhumane.

“There’s a real human cost,” Janove said. “The law’s pretty clear. State actors cannot essentially profit off the uncompensated labor of their civil detainees.”

———

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