Advocates push state to resume early prison releases due to coronavirus

A March executive order from Gov. Polis allowed some inmates to be released early. But the order has expired.

Apryl Alexander, associate professor at the University of Denver, speaks to a crowd gathered at the Colorado State Capitol building about decreasing the prison population on Aug. 27, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

The family of Ronald Johnson — a 62-year-old Black grandfather who’s served 22 years in prison for nonviolent drug offenses — worries that his prison sentence might be a death sentence. 

“In prison, he can’t protect himself and he can’t social distance,” his daughter Amber said in a statement. “My deep fear is that my dad will die in prison. That is an awful, traumatic reality to consider. My chest is tight just thinking about how quickly it spreads and how vulnerable he is.”

Almost six months after the coronavirus pandemic first hit Colorado, criminal justice advocates and families of inmates are renewing a push for more inmates who pose little to no public safety risk — either because of the person’s age, health conditions or if they have shown signs of rehabilitation — to be released from prison. 

Approximately 36% of the people in the state’s prison system are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes and nearly 7% of the total population is over 60, according to the Department of Corrections website. 

In March, Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order that allowed the Department of Corrections to release at-risk and nonviolent inmates to free up space in prisons for social distancing and protect vulnerable inmates from the virus. But the order has since expired. 

As of Aug. 27, 883 inmates and 124 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the state’s prison system, and at least three inmates have died.

Under Polis’ executive order, 61 people earned time credits, 165 were released on “special needs” parole and 84 were released through the DOC’s Intensive Supervision Program, according to the Department of Corrections website. Nearly 15,000 adults are currently incarcerated in private and state prisons throughout Colorado. 

Community members gathered on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol building on Aug. 27, 2020, to push Gov. Jared Polis to use his executive powers to release more people from prison during the coronavirus pandemic. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

“The jail population statewide has been reduced by over 40%, which is really amazing and it does beg the question of why these people were in jail to begin with,” said Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado. In Colorado, county and city jails are managed locally, while state prisons and correctional facilities are managed by the Department of Corrections.

On May 28, the ACLU of Colorado filed a class action lawsuit in Denver District Court against the Department of Corrections and Gov. Jared Polis, stating that state officials were not doing enough to prevent coronavirus outbreaks within Colorado’s prison systems. The lawsuit is pending with the next hearing scheduled for Sept. 10.

“We haven’t seen as much of a decrease on the prison side simply because the process is much more complicated,” Maes said. “The process to get you into prison is a hell of a lot easier than the process to get you out.”

  The process to get you into prison is a hell of a lot easier than the process to get you out.   -Denise Maes, of the ACLU of Colorado

At an event outside Colorado’s Capitol building on Thursday called the “Decarceration Day of Action,” a speaker said that he thinks that the governor is reluctant to allow the Department of Corrections to release more inmates because one person who was released early swiftly committed a serious crime.

“I’m sure everyone knows about the man that was released earlier this year who unfortunately committed a murder,” said Abron Arrington, referencing Cornelius Haney, who was released April 15 from prison and was arrested in May for allegedly killing a 21-year-old woman in Denver. 

“I also knew him and I’d say he should have never been released,” said Arrington, who was released from prison in February. 

Haney’s release had already been in the works prior to the pandemic. Haney, who was serving a seven-year sentence for an armed robbery, had been eligible for parole since March 2017 and had a mandatory release date of Aug. 22, 2020, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections.

“He wasn’t even released because of COVID,” Arrington said. “He started out processing before I was even released, which was way before COVID.”

Abron Arrington, who was released from prison in February, speaks at an event in front of the Colorado State Capitol on Aug. 27, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

At 22 years old, Arrington was convicted of murder and was sentenced to life in prison, but Polis upon reviewing the circumstances of the case commuted Arrington’s sentence in December 2019, noting that Arrington’s three co-defendants, including the shooter and the gun owner, received milder sentences and had already been released by the time his sentence was commuted.

“I’m not here to criticize the governor. Matter of fact, I can applaud him for releasing me because I know that took a great deal of courage,” Arrington said. “But let’s not use Cornelius Haney or anybody else, or the fear of someone committing a crime as an excuse not to do what is just and what is right.”

At a press conference on Wednesday, Polis circumvented a question from a reporter related to his reasoning for letting the executive order allowing nonviolent offenders to be released early expire. In response, Polis touted the state’s robust testing within prisons, as well as success in wearing masks and limiting transfers between facilities. 

“We’ve been really doing pioneering work to reduce prison outbreaks and we’ve been more successful than other states,” Polis said during the press conference. 

A spokesperson for Polis said on Friday that he would not be commenting further on the issue, citing the ongoing litigation involving the ACLU of Colorado.

Currently, there are seven coronavirus outbreaks in correctional facilities throughout the state, with the largest at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, the Crowley County Correctional Facility and the Sterling Correctional Facility.

At the event on Thursday, Apryl Alexander, associate professor at the University of Denver, stressed that decreasing the state’s prison population is central to the push for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We are in a pandemic where COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous and Latino communities,” said Alexander, who is also a member of Denver’s local Black Lives Matter chapter. “We know that these same communities have been disproportionately affected by mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex.”

Hispanic people make up 31% of the state’s prison population but only represent 22% of the state’s general population. Similarly, African American people make up 18% of the prison population but only 4.6% of Colorado’s general populations, according to the most recent Census data.

During the event on Thursday, Arrington emphasized that many people incarcerated are nonviolent or no longer pose a threat to society. He says he knows a lot of them personally.

“I’m a man who’d never committed a crime in his life,” said Arrington, who is now a case manager at the Second Chance Center, a reentry program for people transitioning from the criminal justice system. “I never had a traffic ticket and I spent 31 years in prison. I’m not a dangerous criminal. I never have been and I never will be.”