ACLU Lawsuit Seeks Information on Federal Government’s Failed Response to COVID-19 in Jails and Prisons

October 21, 2020 8:45 am

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NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of the District of Columbia, Williams & Connolly LLP, and attorney David Sobel filed suit today against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services demanding the immediate release of improperly withheld agency records related to the federal government’s failed response to the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails. The lawsuit seeks to uncover critical information about the federal government’s response — and lack thereof — to the coronavirus in detention facilities across the country.

In April and July, the ACLU submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the BOP, DOJ, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seeking information about the federal government’s lack of preparation for and failed response to the risk of COVID-19 in detention facilities. This includes lax guidance to state and federal facilities on critical issues like mask wearing and social distancing, as well as communications with the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Today’s filing alleges that the agencies have failed to produce any records while publicly declaring victory over the virus. The lawsuit also cites multiple instances of their dishonest and incompetent handling of the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities, including:

  • Failing to make the BOP director and other DOJ officials available for a September House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing;
  • Refusing to respond to the demands of elected officials who this month demanded information on COVID-19 response, citing “mounting evidence that efforts to contain the virus within BOP facilities are failing;” and
  • BOP describing its response to the pandemic as “robust” despite a lawsuit brought by the federal corrections officers’ union and the death of six men at Oakdale FCI.

“It is grotesque enough that our federal government has failed to protect people in jails and prisons from COVID-19 — people with lives, families, and constitutional rights. But they have also hidden that failed response from the public while claiming there’s nothing to see here,” said Somil Trivedi, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “This is illegal, and we’ll see the administration in court.”

As of the date of the filing of this complaint, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 220,000 people in the United States. The pandemic continues to disproportionately ravage the incarcerated population in this country, and according to the ACLU’s Death by Incarceration Tracker, more than 1,250 incarcerated people have died in jails and prisons due to the disease. There are more than 150,000 people incarcerated in federal facilities throughout the United States. They are disproportionately Black and Brown, and acutely vulnerable to the coronavirus for multiple reasons, including increased numbers of elderly and other at-risk groups and the lack of ability to socially distance.

Despite knowing early on that this population would be particularly susceptible to infection, illness, and death, the federal government failed to prevent the spread behind bars. And despite this reality, government officials have publicly patted themselves on the back while withholding vital information from the public and failing to meet statutory obligations of transparency related to their management of the crisis.

The complaint is here:

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