March 24, 2020

Van Hollen, Warren, Colleagues Demand Answers to Questions About Federal Bureau of Prisons and Private Prison Company's Readiness for Coronavirus Pandemic

Senators Received No Response or Inadequate Responses to Initial BOP and GEO Group Inquiry

United States Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) joined Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Cory A. Booker (D-N.J.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.), in writing to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the large private prison company GEO Group (GEO) demanding answers to the questions they posed earlier this month about the policies and procedures that BOP and GEO have in place to prepare for and manage a potential spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in federal prisons and jails.

The senators' latest letters come after several COVID-19 quarantines or outbreaks that occurred in prisons and jails just days after the senators' initial inquiry.

"In light of the ongoing public health emergency-and the recent reports of infections among incarcerated individuals and correctional staff-we are following up on our letter to request that you immediately respond to our questions and provide a telephonic briefing no later than March 25, 2020," the lawmakers wrote in their letter to BOP.

Just days after the senators' sent their initial letters, GEO reported that 34 incarcerated individuals and staff at a GEO-managed facility in Pennsylvania were quarantined after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus. Disturbingly, despite that outbreak at one of their facilities, GEO refused to answer the senators' questions about its COVID-19 preparedness plans, and instead redirected all questions to BOP.

"We are disturbed by GEO's refusal to provide critical information necessary to assess the steps it is taking in response to this crisis," the lawmakers wrote in their letter to GEO. 

"GEO's refusal to take responsibility for individuals at their facilities and their contractual obligations to federal taxpayers underscores the urgency with which BOP must confront this crisis in order to protect incarcerated individuals, correctional staff, and their families," the lawmakers stated in their letter to BOP.  

Although the BOP released a COVID-19 action plan last week, it failed to address many of the questions the senators asked about in their March 9th letter, such as steps the BOP is taking to prepare for treatment of individuals in its custody that may contract COVID-19, how the BOP will deal with staffing shortages in the event of an outbreak, and what it is doing to enforce contractual obligations and ensure private prison contractors are adequately prepared for a possible COVID-19 outbreak.

To address their concerns, the senators asked BOP and GEO to provide thorough and complete answers to the questions outlined in their March 9th letters, and requested that BOP brief their staff on the actions it is taking to prepare for the COVID-19 outbreak no later than March 25, 2020. 

The full text of the letter to BOP is available here.

The full text of the letter to GEO Group is available here.