ACLU Files FOIA Requests for Trump and Governors’ Knowledge of Potential COVID-19 Outbreaks in Prisons and Jails

The ACLU's Federal FOIA Gains the Support of the Council of Prison Locals Which Currently Represents 30,000 Correctional Officers

April 29, 2020 9:00 am

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NEW YORK — Today, the American Civil Liberties Union and at least 35 ACLU affiliates filed coordinated public records requests with the Trump administration and states across the country. These records requests seek information on what the Bureau of Prisons, governors, and departments of corrections knew about the potentially catastrophic impacts of COVID-19 on their prisons and the communities surrounding them.

“The unprecedented events of this worldwide pandemic have caused us to reevaluate many aspects of everyday life and the ways in which we approach our problems. The Council of Prison Locals applauds the efforts of the ACLU in seeking information from the Bureau of Prisons as it relates to the agency’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Shane Fausey, President of the Council of Prison Locals C-33. “Our communities, correctional employees, and incarcerated individuals are at equal risk from a deadly, unseen, and common enemy. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is an agency of the U.S. government and its mission is to serve the American people. This FOIA request is an attempt to solicit the transparency and answers the American people deserve.”

The ACLU’s records requests follow the release of a first-of-its-kind epidemiological model that shows that as many as 200,000 people could die from COVID-19 — double the government estimate — if the federal government and states fail to release people from jails as part of the public health efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. According to BOP, there at least 1,313 incarcerated people and 335 BOP staff had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 28. At least 30 people incarcerated in BOP facilities have died. In response to the ACLU model, a Trump administration spokesperson refused to comment. The ACLU is now filing these FOIA requests to find out what the administration knew and when it knew it, as COVID-19 has begun to infect and kill people incarcerated in and working in federal and state prisons and jails, as well as the surrounding communities.

The ACLU is seeking records that will:

  • Expose whether and when state and federal governments first understood the magnitude of the risk that COVID-19 posed to people living and working in state and federal prisons and the surrounding communities;
  • Reveal whether models relied upon by the Trump administration and state governors were fundamentally flawed by failing to account for the magnifying effect that prisons have on the spread of COVID-19 inside and outside detention facilities;
  • Discover communications, including emails, among senior officials as the first infections and deaths occurred within BOP and state facilities;
  • Seek copies of any recommendations made to prevent COVID-19 spread to see what was ignored;
  • Uncover first-hand complaints and grievances made directly by the staff and people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, who had prior knowledge of the horrifying lack of planning, hygiene, and care inside federal prisons as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were alarm bells ringing inside and outside these prison systems about the need to swiftly and safely reduce prison populations and protect the most vulnerable,” said Taylor Pendergrass, senior campaign strategist with the ACLU. “Bringing to light what federal and state governments knew about the impacts of COVID should motivate bolder action immediately across the country to avoid more preventable deaths in prisons and will be the foundation upon which we hold these leaders accountable for any inaction in the months and years to come.”

ACLU advocacy across the nation has led to at least 20,000 fewer people in jails and prisons in order to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and save lives both within these institutions and in their surrounding communities. The ACLU is fighting for thousands more to be released to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

The FOIA requests are here:

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