Private prison REIT threatened inmates for reporting Covid-19 concerns: lawsuit

Complaint alleges Boca Raton-based Geo Group said it would discipline inmates if they called any county or city agencies for Covid-19 information

National /
Jul.July 06, 2020 03:25 PM
Chief Executive Officer of the GEO Group George Zoley and the Geo Group headquarters

Chief Executive Officer of the GEO Group George Zoley and the Geo Group headquarters

Geo Group, one of the largest private prison operators in the country, is putting inmates at risk of contracting Covid-19, and is failing to report on inmates who have died from the virus at one of its facilities in Houston, according to a recent lawsuit.

Avery Ayers, an inmate in a federal halfway house in Houston, alleges GEO Group, a real estate investment trust, has failed to abide by the proper safety and health protocols at the facility. Notably, the company threatened to discipline inmates if they called any county or city agencies for Covid-19 information, testing or informing them about any deaths at the facility, according to the complaint filed in federal court in Houston in late June.

Furthermore, the complaint alleges GEO Group has not reported on three deaths at the facility related to COVID-19.

Geo Group did not immediately return a request to comment.

Ayers has been a resident at Geo Group’s halfway house since February and is set to be released in July on supervised release, according to the complaint. Ayers makes a number of allegations on how Geo Group is not in compliance with the Center for Disease Control and Bureau of Prison’s guidance.

He claims that when meals are served there are 25-30 at a time in a common area and prisoners have to sit five people at a table making it impossible to social distance.

He also alleges that inmates are required to sleep in close quarters and in bunk beds about three feet apart and share bathrooms. The inmates are also forced to clean the facilities themselves, but Geo Group does not provide basic cleaning supplies, or basic medical care, and does not have an on-site medical team, the suit claims.

The complaint further alleges Geo Group is not screening people for coronavirus before they come into the halfway house.

The complaint is seeking class action and is seeking to release enough people from the halfway house so that residents can be housed safely. It also seeks to implement the appropriate sanitary measures, including an in-house medical staff and screening of staff and residents for Covid-19 symptoms before they come into the facility.

Geo Group is based in Boca Raton. It has seen its stock fall over 30 percent since the beginning of March to $11.48 in July due to the impacts of the coronavirus.

Geo Group, with a market cap of about $1.4 billion, reported a sharp decline in net income and revenue in its first quarter. The company’s net income fell to $25.2 million, or 21 cents per diluted share, compared to $40.7 million, or 34 cents per diluted share, in the first quarter of 2019. Revenues, meanwhile, dropped to $605 million in the first quarter of 2020 from $610.7 million in the first quarter of 2019.

Geo Group said in its most recent earnings that “the spread of COVID-19 has negatively impacted a number of our facilities and programs and is expected to result in lower full-year 2020 revenues.”

The company’s stock dropped significantly in 2016 after the Obama administration announced its plans to phase out private prison contracts with the federal government. Under Trump, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed this decision in 2017 and Geo Group gained the first contract for an immigration detention center under the Trump presidency.

The firm also donated more than $500,000 to President Trump’s campaign and inaugural committee and to other Republican candidates, including to Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis.

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