McHenry County, sheriff sued for allegedly forcing immigrant detainees to do janitorial work ‘against their will’ or be punished

Six immigrant detainees previously housed in the McHenry County Jail have filed a federal lawsuit seeking class-action status and at least $5 million in damages

McHenry County Jail

A group of former federal immigration detainees housed at the McHenry County Jail are claiming in a federal lawsuit that they were forced to clean showers, toilets and the gym for free or face punishment that included being locked in their cells or solitary confinement.

The detainees filed the suit earlier this spring against McHenry County and Sheriff Bill Prim and are claiming, among other things, that jail officials violated the federal Trafficking Victims Protections Act by forcing them to do the janitorial and maintenance work at the jail. They are seeking class-action status and are asking for at least $5 million in damages for current and past detainees.

“The practice of forcing immigrants to clean their cells and common living areas, also called dayrooms, of the facility, for no pay whatsoever, and under threat of punishment, is a violation of federal and state human trafficking laws,” according to the lawsuit.

The McHenry County Sheriff’s Office as of Wednesday had not been served with the lawsuit and said it has no comment on pending litigation, spokesman Deputy Kevin Byrnes said.

Jay Kumar, one of the attorneys representing the former detainees, said he received confirmation the sheriff’s office had been served late Thursday afternoon.

McHenry County housed federal immigrant detainees at its jail through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement for several years. During that time, the county received compensation of $95 per day for each detainee.

That ended when the state passed the Illinois Way Forward Act in May 2021, which prohibited Illinois counties from entering into agreements with ICE to detain immigrants.

The county began emptying its jail of detainees, which was completed by early February. Meanwhile, the county is appealing the Way Forward Act. An original injunction on the law filed by the county was denied in December. County officials currently are appealing that decision. An attempt to reach McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally regarding the status of the lawsuit was unsuccessful

The loss of the contract also has been a concern for several Republican candidates running this year for the McHenry County Board.

Nevertheless, the federal lawsuit filed April 15 by Aleksey Ruderman, Jason Clarke, Jahat Evelyn, Basaru Asolo, James Forero and Chris Pocknell maintains that the county unjustly profited from their forced labor and based their budgeting decisions in part “by forcing civilly-detained immigrants to provide uncompensated labor.”

In addition to cleaning showers and toilets in the common area, some of the other work included wiping down tables, sweeping and mopping the floors and wiping down cell doors, according to the filing.

The lawsuit alleges that one detainee, Ruderman, who is Jewish, was forced to clean on Rosh Hashanah, a religious holiday, in violation of his religious principles.

Ruderman said he spent four years in ICE custody, bouncing across different facilities. McHenry County Jail was the “worst” place he stayed at in terms of the way he was treated, he said.

“I wanted to bring this out to the public and the courts to decide if this was fair,” he said. “I don’t think it’s right, especially in this country.”

In 2008, Ruderman, who is from Belarus, was convicted of negligent homicide by use of a vehicle and served a five-year sentence. Three years after he was released, he was taken into custody by ICE.

When detainees refused to do the work, they were punished in different ways, including either being locked in their cells or being sent to solitary confinement, according to the lawsuit.

The filing also details parts of the jail’s handbook, which is give to each inmate and detainee. Basic inmate responsibilities include “Follow and obey rules, laws, and policies, and procedures,” along with, “Obey all lawful orders as given by staff members,” according to the filing.

Inmates and detainees were required to clean the common area to which they were assigned, according to the filing. One punishment laid out in the handbook for not doing this includes being required to do uncompensated labor, according to the filing.

Others include loss of section activities and purchase of luxury items, losing privileges for up to 15 days, changes in assignments and living arrangements, restitution, loss of earned time and criminal prosecution, according to the filing.

Another detainee, Forero, was refused his daily recreational hour for phone calls and showering on his birthday because he refused to clean, according to the lawsuit.

The treatment of inmates is also discussed in the filing, as detainees were told to obey orders if they want to avoid “going to the ‘hole,’” which was solitary confinement. They were also screamed at, according to the filing.

Byrnes, the Sheriff’s Office spokesman, however, said in an email that inmates and detainees are compensated for work they do, though that doesn’t include the cleaning of dayrooms, which is considered a shared responsibility, he said. Dayroom cleanup is on a rotational basis.

“All inmates and detainees are responsible for doing their part to keep their cells and dayroom areas clean,” Byrnes said in an email.

Byrnes did not comment on the type of punishments levied against inmates, citing pending litigation.

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