New York attorney general seeks court order against Queens private prison over COVID-19 protocols

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New York Attorney General Letitia James took legal action in an ongoing civil investigation into potentially inadequate COVID-19 protocols taken at the city’s only private for-profit jails in Springfield Gardens.

James filed court documents on Tuesday, Dec. 15 saying that GEO Group, Inc., the private detention management company that operates the 222-bed facility near JFK International Airport, had failed to produce documents she had subpoenaed to comply with an ongoing investigation.

The attorney general’s office launched a probe into allegations at the Queens Detention Center that raised red flags last spring through public reporting, complaints, and court affidavits regarding failures to put sufficient COVID-19 protections in place for the detainees and staff at the center.

During the investigation, the attorney general’s office learned of complaints that GEO failed to separate symptomatic detainees or provide enough protection wear or medical care at the dormitory-style Queens Detention Center, raising concerns that coronavirus safety procedures were insufficient to prevent or detect infections.

“Far too often, for-profit detention facilities, like GEO, prioritize their bottom line, and not transparency, accountability, or the wellbeing on incarcerated individuals,” James said. “GEO has a clear responsibility to the staff and detained individuals at the Queens Detention Facility to promote a safe environment that follows the COVID-19 city, state, and federal guidelines and laws. Our facilities, both public and private, must have proper protocols and procedures in place, and I will continue to launch legal actions to compel GEO to comply with our office’s lawful subpoenas so that we can get the answers we need to uncover the truth.”

The Queens Detention Facility is located in a nondescript former warehouse in an industrial park at 182-22 150th Ave. It is currently used by the U.S. Marshals Service and used to operate as an ICE detention center until its contract expired in 2005. GEO Group said all of its inmates have access to healthcare and they follow guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

“We will continue to coordinate closely with our government partners and local health agencies to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees, GEO Group said in a statement.

According to the attorney general’s office, GEO has reported testing of only 13 detainees out of approximately 160 for COVID-19 since mid-April, which is another source of concern that an outbreak may go unchecked. By comparison, government-run jails in the city have tested thousands of individuals.

GEO has claimed that it is shielded from the subpoena as a federal contractor but the Attorney General’s office argues that it has broad powers to investigate illegality, including issuing subpoenas for information from GEO about its practices at the facility in order to protect detainees, prison staff, and New York state residents from a possible threat to health and safety.

The petition to compel, filed in New York Supreme Court, seeks an order compelling GEO’s compliance with the subpoenas. The attorney general’s office has reached no conclusions in the matter and the investigation remains ongoing.

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