by Douglas Ankney
On March 16, 2021, the Queens Daily Eagle reported that the federal government had declined to renew a contract with for-profit prison contractor GEO Group to operate the Queens Detention Facility (QDF). QDF was New York City’s last privately-operated jail.
GEO contracted with the U.S. Marshalls Service to detain cooperating witnesses, aka snitches, while awaiting trial or sentencing in the federal courts. QDF was one facility used by GEO to detain those persons.
But beginning in spring of 2020, reports of inadequate protocols to detect, treat, and prevent the spread of COVID-19 at QDF began circulating in the media, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), headed by New York Attorney General Letitia James, launched an investigation into conditions at QDF after learning of complaints that GEO failed to separate symptomatic detainees from the general population; failed to provide sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and detainees; and failed to provide adequate medical care. At QDF the detainees sleep in bunk beds crowded into seven open dormitories - a condition highly conducive to the transmission of the coronavirus, “Everyone’s coughing [and] sneezing on top of each other,” a detainee reported on April 3, 2020. At that time GEO had tested only 13 of 160 detainees for COVID. “We’re not practicing social distancing because you cannot do social distancing in this jail because everyone is so on top of each other,” the detainee said.
Initially, an eight-cell solitary confinement unit was used to quarantine infected detainees. But the unit soon filled up and detainees with COVID remained in the crowded dormitories with other detainees who had not yet contracted the disease. Additionally, GEO didn’t provide sanitizer or other PPE. At one point the number of staff staying out sick left only one guard available to patrol multiple units.
As part of its investigation, the OAG issued a subpoena duces tecum on May 26, 2020 followed by another subpoena duces tecum and a subpoena ad testificandum on June 15, 2020. The OAG sought documents and testimony from GEO. But GEO refused to comply with the subpoenas by claiming it was shielded from compliance as a federal contractor.
The OAG responded on December 11, 2020, by filing a “Verified Petition to Compel Compliance with Subpoena Issued by the Attorney General of the State of New York, Letitia James” (“Petition”) in the Supreme Court for the County of New York. The Petition recounts that in April 2020 an outbreak of COVID exploded at the QDF among staff and detainees. According to court-ordered status reports provided by QDF Warden William Zerillo, confirmed cases of COVID rose from 9 to 61 in just 14 days. By May 2020, the outbreak continued, including some patients who had recovered testing positive again.
The Petition also alleged GEO failed to sanitize the dorms; failed to provide PPE; failed to separate infected detainees from those who had not tested positive. The Petition supported the allegations by referencing Collier v. Sozio, USDC SD NY, Case No. 20-CV-2183, a putative class action petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed in the Federal District Court for Southern New York in which an asthmatic detainee testified that another detainee who had tested positive for COVID remained in the housing unit, intermingling with all of the other detainees. The OAG’s preliminary review of these reports as well as media reports prompted its investigation and issuance of the subpoenas.
In its Petition, the OAG asserted that GEO was required to comply with the subpoenas, arguing that Executive Law § 63(12)—which not only granted the OAG broad powers to investigate the illegality and issue subpoenas for practices at QDF pertaining to the protection of detainees, staff, and residents of New York from a threat to their health and safety- but § 63(12) also granted the OAG authority to subpoena GEO for documents pertaining to GEO’s claimed immunity. The OAG sought an order compelling GEO’s compliance with the subpoenas; an award of a statutory penalty of $150 from GEO; and all other relief the court deemed just and appropriate.
In response to the federal government’s decision to end its contract with GEO, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said it was “a victory for the Southeast Queens community and our borough.” He added, “This for-profit facility, managed by GEO Group, had a troubling track record—from housing ICE detainees [to] exposing the incarcerated to COVID-19. Thanks to the swift action and partnership with our Attorney General Letitia James and Congressman Gregory Meeks and the Queens Daily Eagle’s reporting on this, Queens residents can breathe a sigh of relief with the non-renewal of this facility.”
NY AG James stated, “Far too often, for-profit detention facilities, like GEO, prioritize their bottom line, and not transparency, accountability, or wellbeing of incarcerated individuals. GEO has a clear responsibility to the staff and detained individuals in the [QDF] to promote a safe environment….”
GEO has said it will “market the Queens Detention Facility to other government agencies.” But President Joe Biden signed an executive order in January 2021 directing the Department of Justice not to renew any private detention contracts. Immigration contracts, however, are not affected by the ban. See: People v. GEO Group, Inc., Supreme Court, Case No. ____.
Sources: queenseagle.com; ag.ny.gov;
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