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EPA Slams GEO Over Disinfectant Use at Private Prison, Federal Court Issues Preliminary Injunction to Stop It

by Dale Chappell

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a report and warning in March 2021 to GEO Group for misuse and abuse of a disinfectant at its ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, California. The report says that GEO was applying HQD Neutral in a manner that was in violation of federal law and cited numerous problems with the way GEO was using the toxic chemical to disinfect housing areas in the 2,000-bed facility to fight the spread of COVID-19.

More significantly, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction enjoining the use of the disinfectant and also found the government and GEO’s response to COVID to be inadequate and unreasonable. In doing so, it reaffirmed its preliminary injunction ruling.

The announced inspection happened on July 29, 2020, at the Adelanto facility after more than 250,000 people signed a petition to stop Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from misusing the chemical there. A congressman also pushed for a hearing on the matter, according to the EPA’s report. Inspectors held a “virtual inspection” which lasted 90 minutes.” When inspectors requested a full tour of the facility, GEO refused and said it was up to ICE officials. GEO managers at the facility also refused to answer many of the questions asked by the inspectors, at the advice of their lawyer, and they refused to sign the report.

The EPA found that GEO staff had been applying HDQ Neutral at a concentration twice that recommended for disinfection for human contact, and twice as often as they should have been—every 30 minutes instead of no more than every hour. In the administrative areas, however, GEO used the proper concentration and applied the chemical at the proper intervals. Inspectors also found that while staff wore the proper protective equipment when applying HDQ Neutral, detainees were not given the same equipment nor were they required to wear the equipment they were given. Spartan Chemical Company, the makers of HDQ Neutral, says that gloves, masks, and goggles should be worn when applying the chemical.

Detainees, however, complained that the chemical was applied by staff while they were close by and often were left with surfaces still wet from the chemical. They also said that chemicals were sometimes mixed to clean food areas. In May 2020, advocates for the detainees filed a legal complaint that GEO was over-using the pesticide in retaliation for complaints by detainees that the private prison company wasn’t doing anything to combat COVID-19.

Raul Garcia, legislative director for the nonprofit Earthjustice, said the EPA’s warning was a good first step but more needs to be done. “We don’t know what the actual damage is to people detained at Adelanto,” he said. This chemical has been used at Adelanto for nearly a decade. We could be looking at hundreds of thousands of specific violations of law.”

U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter ordered GEO to “immediately” stop using HDQ Neutral at the facility. “After receiving what appear to be valid complaints from detainees regarding the toxicity and noxiousness of HDQ Neutral, the Government and its contractor, the GEO Group, did absolutely nothing other than to continue the use of HDQ Neutral,” the judge wrote. “It is clear to the Court that the use of HDQ Neutral in Adelanto’s housing units was with a callous disregard for the safety of Adelanto’s detainees and in violation of the detainees’ constitutional right to reasonable safety.” The court further found that the use of HDQ Neutral in the housing units was “in callous disregard for the reasonable safety” of the detainees.

The court ordered the defendants to test prisoners weekly for COVID, to reduce the prison’s population and to allow for social distancing and to not accept new prisoners until it had reduced the prisoner population to levels that allow for social distancing while eating, sleeping, showering and going about daily activities.

The court ordered the staff to be masked while in the prison and socially distance themselves form each other and the prisoners. Prisoners were orders to be masked as well. The court also ordered the government to give prisoners, at no cost, sufficient and appropriate cleaning supplies as well as hygiene supplies. See: Roman v. Wolf, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179198 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 29, 2020). 


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