Today, The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota, along with the ACLU national office and more than 30 affiliates, filed coordinated public records requests with Gov. Kristi Noem, the South Dakota Department of Corrections and the Trump administration that seek information on what the Bureau of Prisons and Governors and Departments of Corrections knew about the potentially catastrophic impacts of COVID-19 on their prisons and the communities surrounding them.
The ACLU's records requests follow the release of a first-of-its-kind epidemiological model that shows that as many as 200,000 people could die from COVID-19 — double the government estimate — if the federal government and states fail to release people from jails as part of the public health efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. In response to the ACLU model, a Trump administration spokesperson refused to comment. The ACLU is now filing these FOIA requests to find out what the administration knew and when it knew it, as COVID-19 has begun to infect and kill people incarcerated in and working in federal and state prisons and jails as well as the surrounding communities.
The ACLU of South Dakota is seeking records that will:
- Expose whether and when the Department of Corrections first understood the magnitude of the risk that COVID-19 posed to people living and working in state and federal prisons and the surrounding communities;
- Reveal whether models relied upon by the Department of Corrections were fundamentally flawed by failing to account for the magnifying effect that prisons have on the spread of COVID-19 inside and outside detention facilities.
- Seek copies of any recommendations made to prevent COVID-19 spread to see what was ignored;
- Discover communications, including emails, among senior officials as the first infections and deaths occurred within South Dakota DOC and state facilities;
- Uncover first-hand complaints and grievances made directly by the staff and people incarcerated in South Dakota who had prior knowledge of the horrifying lack of planning, hygiene, and care inside federal prisons as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Public health experts have rung multiple alarm bells about the spread of COVID-19 in our prison system. Despite those warnings, the depopulation of jails, prisons, and other detention facilities continues too slowly to avoid catastrophe,” said Heather Smith, executive director of the ACLU of South Dakota. “Our FOIA requests will show what South Dakota knew about the impacts of COVID-19 on our prison system ahead of its spread but chose to ignore, and what they failed to discover by relying on faulty models.”
ACLU advocacy across the nation has led to at least 20,000 fewer people in jails and prisons in order to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and save lives both within these institutions and in their surrounding communities. The ACLU is fighting for thousands more to be released to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
About the ACLU of South Dakota
The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of civil liberties and civil rights. The ACLU of South Dakota is part of a three-state chapter that also includes North Dakota and Wyoming. The team in South Dakota is supported by staff in those states.
The ACLU believes freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and religion, and the rights to due process, equal protection and privacy, are fundamental to a free people. In addition, the ACLU seeks to advance constitutional protections for groups traditionally denied their rights, including people of color, women, and the LGBTQ communities. The ACLU of South Dakota carries out its work through selective litigation, lobbying at the state and local level, and through public education and awareness of what the Bill of Rights means for the people of South Dakota.