DENVER — A recent report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) shows the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb at both state prisons and local jail facilities, while those purporting to defend the incarcerated from exposure to the virus appear to be turning a blind eye to the worst outbreak cases.
The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — which recently sued Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams over his handling of their request to release inmates — has yet to take on other correctional facilities in the state, despite much larger outbreaks than the one in Weld.
The ACLU sent a letter to all county sheriffs in March asking them to release inmates to help slow the spread after Gov. Jared Polis did the same. When Reams spoke up and said it wasn’t his job to determine who is and who isn’t ready for release, the ACLU sued Reams in federal court on behalf of seven inmates, alleging Reams’ political differences with Polis caused Reams to deliberately ignore the COVID-19 pandemic and that he did not protect inmates at the Weld County Jail from exposure to the illness.
Yet, according to CDPHE numbers, several facilities across Colorado have much worse breakouts, and the ACLU has yet to take legal action against any of them. The ACLU won its case against Reams — although the outcome of the suit actually called for fewer precautions than were in place before the suit, according to Reams.
“The ruling is kind of a head scratcher,” Reams said, adding the order required him to identify a particular class of inmate and take precautions for those inmates. “It’s really a step backwards. We were treating all the inmates as if they were vulnerable. We were taking precautions as if everyone in there could get infected.”
Perhaps more disturbing, however, is that on a percentage basis, four county facilities in Colorado have higher infection rates, with the highest being Denver’s jail system (which includes both the Denver County Jail and the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center). Its percentage of inmates with the virus is significantly higher than Weld County.
According to the most recent numbers available, Douglas County has 199 inmates, Jefferson County 565 and Weld County 483. Approximately 5 percent of inmates in the Douglas County Jail have either tested positive or are assumed positive and 7 percent in the Jefferson County jail, while Weld County has never been above 2 percent.
Denver County, which houses slightly more than 1,000 inmates, however, is exponentially higher. With 651 inmates reported ill or 63 percent. It is understood that the number of inmates changes daily; however, even taking into consideration if the jails were at capacity and keeping Weld County’s numbers static, both Jefferson (4 percent) and Denver County (30 percent) jails would still have much larger breakouts.
Weld County’s outbreak began April 1, with a total of 11 cases reported to date, while Denver’s outbreaks began April 30 (Van Cise) and May 12 (Denver County), with 581 and 70 cases, respectively. Additionally, the outbreaks came nearly two months after — according to a report in Colorado Politics — Denver released roughly half its population in an attempt to avoid an outbreak.
Jefferson County’s outbreak (41) began May 5 and Douglas County’s (10) began April 28.
Among statewide facilities, the Sterling Correctional Facility also has a much higher rate of infection. The facility, with a capacity of 2,488 beds, currently houses 2,232 inmates. According to CDPHE, 440 or 20 percent, are or have been infected since April 14.
“I was absolutely a target,” Reams said, adding he believes his statement that it is not for him to advocate for the release of inmates was the reason for the suit. He stands behind that today. “It’s not my place or role to go out and say this is unfair for this particular inmate, that’s up to the courts, DA, public defenders and attorneys. All I did was tell the judge and courts I’m not going to release anyone. We have staff on site, and we can treat the inmates. If they want to let anyone out that’s fine.”
Considering the judge did not make a ruling in the ACLU case until May 11, and that changes in how Reams was to treat inmates were not effective until May 15, population was at one point at a high of 796, and cases in his jail topped out at 11, Reams said is more proof he was doing everything he could to protect his inmates.
“Back in March and April, no one knew exactly what to do to prevent Covid-19,” Reams said. “We quarantined my entire jail at one point. My medical staff has done more than the CDC guidelines ever recommended. They’ve caused us to move people around inside the jail and label those folks as vulnerable. The judge provided much more narrow guidelines that what we were doing.”
A request for comment from the ACLU about its plans for future lawsuits has gone unanswered.