To date, more than half a million people living and working in U.S. prisons have contracted Covid-19. While crowded conditions and inconsistent access to health care enabled the spread of the coronavirus, decisions to continue detainee transfers and refusals to enforce mask-wearing among prisoners and staff worsened the crisis.
American Oversight has obtained new records that offer additional insight into the pandemic’s spread in prisons, the full extent of which is still unknown. The records include communications between the GEO Group, one of the largest private prison contractors in the country, and officials at the Florida Department of Management Services (DMS).
In the early days of the pandemic, GEO Group proposed changing parts of its contract for the South Bay Correctional Facility in Palm Beach County, Fla. In a letter dated March 3, 2020, GEO executives asked for the removal of a stipulation that the company would provide a physician who would check laboratory medical test results within 24 hours. The records do not indicate whether these changes were adopted.
On May 1, the Department of Management Services’ Office of Inspector General received an anonymous complaint from someone at the Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa County, Fla. The complainant alleged that inmates displaying Covid-19 symptoms were being tested for the coronavirus and returned to the general population before their test results came back. In response to the complaint, Blackwater Warden Charles Maiorana claimed that all inmates who tested positive for Covid-19 were isolated and quarantined, but did not address the protocols for people whose test results were not yet known.
Also in May, the GEO Group had a plan to conduct targeted testing of people over 65 at three prisons: Bay Correctional Facility, Graceville Correctional Facility, and Moore Haven Correctional Facility. The records suggest that the company ultimately decided not to go ahead with this targeted testing after DMS clarified that it wasn’t mandated by the state of Florida, and therefore might not be reimbursable.
GEO Group runs prisons, detention centers, and reentry centers across the U.S., including the Federal Correctional Institution Big Spring in Texas where, as revealed by the Intercept this spring, detainees reported unsanitary conditions and a “careless response to the spread of the virus.”
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