Aleksey Ruderman swept and mopped the floors at the McHenry County Jail, wiped down the tables and cleaned the showers and toilets — all against his will and without being paid a penny, he said.

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

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

“It was terrible what happened,” Ruderman said of his criminal case. “I feel bad about it. … But now I’m talking about a completely different topic. I don’t think it’s fair to force someone to do something they don’t want to do. It’s not about me, it’s about people who were abused before being deported, who don’t speak English, who don’t know how the laws work in this country. It’s wrong.”

Now Ruderman is part of a lawsuit accusing prison officials of forcing immigrant inmates to work against their will and not paying them anything.

Sheriff Chief James Popovits said deputies did not force inmates to do anything; they worked of their own volition.

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

The federal lawsuit is part of a wave of nationwide litigation claiming that immigrant detainees were forced to work in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Actwhich prohibits forced labor or physical restraint.

Previously, numerous lawsuits had been filed against private contractors such as CoreCivic and GEO Group, in some cases alleging unjust enrichment or minimum wage violations. The costumes had mixed results.

In this case, the lawsuit is filed against the county and Sheriff Bill Prim. State law ended immigration detentions in the county in February. But the lawsuit is seeking more than $5 million in damages, as well as class-action status, to represent all former immigrant inmates held at the prison over the past 10 years.

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

The county jail has jobs that paid inmates and inmates $3 a day, including cooking and laundry, and on road crews, officials said.

Chief of Corrections Michael Clesceri also wrote in an email:

“All inmates and inmates are responsible for doing their part to keep their cells and common rooms clean. The common cleanings of the common room are alternated daily by the cells. However, inmates and inmates are not paid for this function. It is spelled out in the inmate handbook under the rules and regulations of the housing unit. These are not jobs, but rather a responsibility shared by all inmates/inmates to maintain a safe and healthy living environment.

The Illinois Department of Corrections reported that about 25,000 of its inmates are paid for their work, which averages around $200 a year. They work in the restaurant industry or learn skills like welding for an average of $1.30 an hour. Almost two-thirds of people incarcerated in federal prisons had jobs there from a 2014 survey, making 23.5 cents to $1.15 an hour.

Inmates who participate in employment programs have fewer repeat offenses and are more likely to find a job after their release, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and federal work programs have waiting lists for attendance.

Critics have equated some prison labor programs with modern day slavery, and instead called for better job training and real-world rehabilitation programs. They particularly mocked private prisons that profit from the labor of inmates.

But the 13th Amendment exception applies to people convicted of crimes. That’s why the recent spate of lawsuits alleging forced labor has instead focused on immigrant detainees, who are typically charged with civil violations, not crimes, and are awaiting a court ruling on whether to they could legally remain in the United States or be deported.

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 a day per inmate, averaging 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 council voted in 2021 to continue the practice, arguing that it generated revenue and kept inmates closer to home than usual. they were held out of state.

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

Six inmates are named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Some were released, some returned to the countries they left and at least one, Ruderman, got a court order allowing him to stay in the country.

Ruderman came to the United States in 2001 at the age of 19, under the Lautenberg amendment, which facilitated the emigration of some people from the former parts of the Soviet Union. Ruderman, the son of a political activist in Belarus, said he was trying to escape anti-Semitic persecution by neo-Nazi and pro-Russian forces in his country.

In 2008, Ruderman was charged in Wisconsin with drunk driving and hitting and kill a 40 year old woman as she walked along a road at 2 a.m., he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, but had previously driven under the influence and was sentenced to five years in prison.

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

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

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

In prison, he said, if inmates refused to work, guards threatened to report them as noncompliant, which could hurt their immigration records, he said.

McHenry County Correctional Officers are “recruiting” inmates for its Inmate Worker Program in Kitchen, Laundry and Child Care, the sheriff’s website States. The prison also has a road crew program in which inmates pick up trash or perform road maintenance. “The Worker Program is a means of positive and productive interaction for inmates and can help them with employment opportunities after release,” the sheriff’s website reads.

One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Raphael Janove, said some detainees were given a small fee to work in the kitchen, but the lawsuit only concerns those who were forced to work without pay.

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

“There is a real human cost,” Janove said. “The law is quite clear. State actors essentially cannot profit from the unpaid labor of their civilian detainees.

[email protected]ribune.com

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