Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
America’s prison system has become a hotbed for COVID-19. More than 16,500 federal inmates have tested positive for the virus, and at least 127 have died, according to the most recent government data.
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Trump administration to figure out what went wrong.
The civil rights group, which has gone head-to-head with the Trump administration hundreds of times since the president took office, is demanding that the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services fulfill months-old records requests that could shed light on how COVID-19 spread so aggressively among incarcerated individuals and prison workers alike.
The ACLU first sought records relating to COVID-19 from the Bureau of Prisons in April and requested further records from the DOJ and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July, according to the lawsuit. While the agencies acknowledged the requests, they have yet to provide the civil rights organization with documents that could detail how the government reacted—or didn’t react— to repeated outbreaks at detention facilities, according to Somil Trivedi, one of the lead attorneys in the ACLU’s lawsuit.
Prisoners are increasingly elderly and susceptible to chronic illness and don’t always have the ability to properly socially distance from others. The ACLU has separately fought to get some of those at-risk people released.
“The Trump administration, in typical Trump administration fashion, has sort of compounded their incompetence with COVID in jails and prisons with lying,” Trivedi said. “They have said, publicly, ‘We’re doing a great job. The virus is almost gone in federal facilities.’ Through our other litigation, we have sworn documents that say that, and they’re very happy to say that to the press.”
The Bureau of Prisons’ director, Michael Carvajal, and its top doctor, Jeffrey Allen, defended the agency’s “sound pandemic plan” and “well-established history of managing and responding to communicable disease” in comments to the Senate Judiciary Committee in June.
“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the bureau has taken, and will continue to take, aggressive steps to protect the safety and security of all staff and inmates, as well as members of the public,” the officials said in a joint statement to the committee.
Later that month, it was revealed that, among the federal inmates who had been screened for the virus so far, more than 1 out of 3 had tested positive for COVID-19. VICE News and the Marshall Project also reported in June that Bureau of Prisons staff were ignoring or minimizing COVID-19 risks, leading some prisoners to fear for their lives.
By August, new COVID-19 cases among people incarcerated in state and federal prisons reached a pandemic high, thanks in part to outbreaks at federal facilities and detention centers in Florida and California, according to the Marshall Project and the Associated Press. At that point, ABC News reported that testing wasn’t still available for staff at a federal prison in Illinois and that employees were required to find independent testing sites on their own. That was difficult to do, since many were working “double 16-hour shifts almost on a daily basis,” the institution’s union president said.
There have been at least 147,100 COVID-19 cases reported among prisoners in state and federal facilities overall, and 1,246 deaths, according to data compiled by the Marshall Project and the Associated Press, Meanwhile, of the 16,500-plus federal prisoners who were positive with COVID-19 this year, nearly 14,900 have since recovered, according to Bureau of Prisons data.
“People are still getting sick and dying in jails and prisons across the country and the federal government has not only done next to nothing about it, but their mismanagement has made it worse,” Trivedi said.
There are more than 155,000 federal inmates nationwide, either in the Bureau of Prisons’ care, the care of privately managed facilities, or “other types of facilities,” according to the agency’s website.
But the Bureau of Prisons does not oversee the nation’s local jails and state prisons—which have also been slammed with outbreaks in the past several months. Inmates in those facilities are also of concern to the ACLU, and the organization has requested records from the CDC, since the health agency issued what Trivedi called “weak tea” guidance to detention facilities nationwide. Those records would encompass a far broader subset of people, Trivedi said.
The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment about the ACLU’s lawsuit Wednesday. The Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, and CDC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.