‘It was just chaos’: Former Sterling prison guard says COVID protocols were not enforced

Four inmates have died due to the virus at the Colorado correctional facility. The number of cases stands at 712.

Jamie Amaral, a former security guard at the Sterling Correctional Facility in northeastern Colorado, poses for a portrait outside her house in Aurora in November 2020. Amaral, who worked at the prison for nearly three years, said that many of the coronavirus protocols put in place to slow the spread of the virus were not enforced during the time when three inmates died from the coronavirus. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

When Jamie Amaral was called to transport an inmate sick with the coronavirus on April 27 from the Sterling Correctional Facility to a nearby hospital, she was only wearing a cloth mask. When they arrived, they were quickly ushered into a secluded room. 

“Everybody that came in had face shields and masks and the whole suit,” said Amaral, who worked as a security guard at the Sterling prison for nearly three years before resigning in September. “So I asked them for one, I said, ‘Hey, you know, shouldn’t I have that?’ The doctor kind of laughed at me and said, ‘Oh, it’s too late for you.’”

Since March, there have been five coronavirus-related deaths in Colorado prisons, four of which occurred at Sterling in northeastern Colorado, which is the state’s largest correctional facility and houses nearly 1,900 inmates and employs 766 staff members. 

The fourth coronavirus death at Sterling came to light on Wednesday, when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released its weekly outbreak data. There have been 712 confirmed or probable coronavirus cases at Sterling, which at one point had the largest outbreak in the state, with 13 cases being active as of Monday, according to a DOC spokeswoman.

A photograph of the sign outside the Sterling Correctional Facility in Logan County. (Sterling Journal-Advocate)

During the six months that Amaral worked at the prison during the pandemic, she said that many of the coronavirus protocols put in place to slow the spread of the virus were not enforced. 

“I didn’t feel like I could do it anymore after seeing that people were dying off and how they were treating all the guys on the inside, just keeping them locked up, not answering questions, not letting them have phone calls,” said Amaral, who recently moved to Aurora. “There was no clear direction, it was just chaos.”

‘Nobody wanted to admit that they were sick because it became a punishment’

In March, Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order that allowed the DOC 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. 

While it was in place, 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 DOC website. The number of inmates released is less than 2% of the state’s prison population.

Apryl Alexander, a Denver-based clinical and forensic psychologist and trauma researcher, says more needs to be done to decrease Colorado’s prison populations and slow the spread of the virus. 

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)

“We know that people of color are more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 in general, and individuals who are incarcerated are disproportionately minority populations,” she said. “This is a racial justice issue.”

On May 28, the ACLU of Colorado filed a class action lawsuit in Denver District Court against the DOC and Polis, stating that state officials were not doing enough to prevent coronavirus outbreaks within Colorado’s prison system. The lawsuit is pending.

Alexander is worried about the inmates’ mental health. “In a facility that’s at over-capacity, we know that there is no room for social distancing,” she said. “So the last resort is things that are kind of similar to solitary confinement in nature.”

“I didn’t feel like I could do it anymore after seeing that people were dying off and how they were treating all the guys on the inside, just keeping them locked up, not answering questions, not letting them have phone calls.”Jamie Amaral, former Sterling Correctional Facility employee

On numerous occasions, Amaral said she was instructed to have an inmate pack up their things, only to find out later that the inmate had tested positive for COVID and was being moved to a single cell to be isolated.

“Some of the guys thought they were getting out because there was no communication from anybody,” she said. “And the whole time the guy is saying goodbye and hugging everybody thinking it’s time to go. It was really heart-wrenching.”

When the inmates came back, they would tell Amaral that they didn’t get any sort of medical treatment. “Half the time, they weren’t allowed cleaning supplies,” she said. “They were just locked in their cells. They couldn’t come out and shower. They couldn’t use a phone. They’d be washing their clothes in the sink that’s attached to a toilet.”

A DOC spokeswoman disputed this claim, stating that inmates in quarantine were allowed access to phones, were provided cleaning supplies and had their clothes and linens laundered regularly.

Jamie Amaral, a former security guard at the Sterling Correctional Facility in northeastern Colorado, looks at her correctional officer resume in November 2020. She worked for the prison for nearly three years and resigned in September 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Amaral said that once inmates figured out that they were being put in isolation because they had COVID, they started hiding their symptoms. “Nobody wanted to admit that they were sick because it became a punishment,” she said.

Inmates were also frequently moved between units, which likely contributed to the outbreak, Amaral said. “Any shot they had at isolating the virus went out the window because they just moved everybody around constantly,” she said.

While Amaral was working there, the prison was allowing five men to volunteer to help distribute food and clean the facility.

“They kind of became known as the cleaners for COVID,” she said. “They were just a group of guys from culinary, welding, different programs that just wanted to help slow the spread of COVID, so they would come out every day and clean different areas of the facility.”

In an email, a DOC spokeswoman said that COVID precautions are being enforced at all of the department’s facilities, and that management staff at the Sterling Correctional Facility are conducting weekly video reviews of the facility to ensure compliance.

On Monday, the DOC conducted a Zoom meeting to answer questions sent to the department by inmates’ family members. During the update, the DOC announced it has hired a COVID response coordinator, who will act as a liaison with the governor’s office and is charged with monitoring the distribution of personal protective equipment and how facilities are adhering to CDC guidelines.

During the livestream, Annie Skinner, a spokeswoman for the DOC, stressed that the biggest tool the department has to slow the spread of the virus is robust testing and that the department is exploring the possibility of rapid testing. “That will hopefully be available to us soon,” she said. 

‘It’ll mess me up for a long time’

While working at the Sterling prison, Amaral was assigned to hospital coverage and spent time with three inmates who ultimately died from the coronavirus in May and June, she said. She said that at the time she didn’t realize the severity of the situation.

“I was worried, but I thought maybe they’d just get oxygen for a couple days, they’ll fight through this and then they’ll come back,” she said. “But that wasn’t the case.” 

When she returned from the hospital after her first transport, she asked her shift commander if she should quarantine. He said no. 

So, I went back to work the next day,” she said. “And that would be the kind of standard for a while. I can’t speak for what’s going on now, but if I was at the hospital with a COVID patient, and then I had to come back, I would just wash my hands and go back to work.”

Jamie Amaral, a former security guard at the Sterling Correctional Facility in northeastern Colorado, looks back at her texts from April and May 2020, when she spent time with three inmates who died at the hospital from the coronavirus. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

In response to a question from a Newsline reporter about whether staff are required to quarantine after being with a COVID-positive patient at the hospital, a DOC spokeswoman said that “staff members who are in contact with COVID-positive inmates, whether at the hospital or in a cohorted unit of positive inmates at the facility, are being provided increased personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, and staff members are being tested at least weekly.”

In a press release from April 16, the DOC stated that, “In accordance with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, the Department is quarantining offenders who had prolonged exposure to a positive case, and staff that had prolonged exposure to a positive case are being placed on leave for up to 14 days.”

On May 10, Amaral went to the Sterling Regional hospital to visit the three men who were admitted. She knew them all from chatting during their outdoor time in the yard. The first man she visited was scared, and kept asking her what was going to happen and if he was going to die. “Don’t talk like that, you’re not going to die. Don’t have that in your head, you’re good,” she recalled telling the inmate.

The DOC does not release the names of inmates who have died within the facility, citing medical privacy laws.

When she entered the second inmate’s room, the inmate’s eyes were closed and he was frozen in the fetal position, handcuffed to his hospital bed. “I was trying to get his attention and talk to him but he wasn’t even acknowledging that. So I kind of knew the gravity of the situation,” Amaral said. “I just sat there and I talked to him. He never did talk back to me. But I know he knew I was there.”

While a nurse was trying to draw blood from the inmate, he locked eyes with Amaral and grabbed her hand. “When I left, I had to peel my hand from his,” she said. “He passed away a few hours later. An officer called me at home to tell me he was gone. I acted like it didn’t affect me, but it always will.”

“When I left, I had to peel my hand from his. He passed away a few hours later. An officer called me at home to tell me he was gone. I acted like it didn’t affect me, but it always will.”Jamie Amaral

Amaral said the third inmate she visited talked her ear off about his son. “I thought for sure he would be coming back. And then he ended up passing away, too,” she said. “They were nice guys. They were fun to be around, they always had really positive attitudes. It’ll mess me up for a long time, I think, just seeing them in that condition.”

In June, a group of family members with loved ones in Sterling organized a vigil in front of the prison for the three men who died at the facility. Amaral said the event boosted the morale of the inmates for weeks.

“We were told that we weren’t allowed to interact with them,” Amaral said. “I wish I could’ve gone and talked to them and given them a hug and told them I tried to do the best I could. I wish that they could have been with their families. Everybody deserves that … nobody deserves to die like that.”

Families anxious and in the dark

Sterling is under what the DOC calls Phase III operations, due to the coronavirus, which means inmates have limited access to phone and video calls. This has left many families feeling on edge and in the dark.

The longest Amanda Smith has gone without talking to her husband — who’s an inmate at Sterling — during the pandemic was two weeks.

“It’s a very sick feeling, not knowing what’s going on,” Smith said. “It gets really scary when you don’t hear from your loved one for four or five days at a time. And you’re going, OK, are they sick? Did something happen?’ You can call up to the prison all day long, they will not tell you anything.”

Smith, who recently moved to Missouri, said the communication she and other families have received from the DOC related to the coronavirus outbreak has been poor and, at times, nonexistent. She helps run a Facebook page for family members who have loved ones in the Sterling Correctional Facility to share information and find support. She said she recently removed two members of the group when she discovered they were the wives of sergeants at the prison. “They’re trying to stay one step ahead of us,” she said. 

 “It gets really scary when you don’t hear from your loved one for four or five days at a time. And you’re going, ‘OK, are they sick? Did something happen?’ You can call up to the prison all day long, they will not tell you anything.”Amanda Smith, whose husband is an inmate at the Sterling Correctional Facility. 

The DOC is now hosting weekly Zoom meetings on Fridays to answer questions from families. The department recommends emailing [email protected] or contacting the citizen’s advocate Lisa Wylie at 719-226-4569 to ask questions or voice concerns.

“Every time I call up there and I ask to speak to somebody that’s got clearance to talk to me, they tell me they need to take my name and number and that they’ll get back to me,” said Kelly Brasier, whose 84-year-old uncle, Anthony Martinez, is an inmate at Sterling. “They never call back.”

She keeps scheduling video calls with her uncle but then gets a notification that it’s been canceled. “You can’t catch COVID over the internet,” Brasier said. “When are they going to realize that their staff members are bringing it into the prisons and quit punishing the prisoners and their families?”

Martinez, who has kidney issues and is in a wheelchair, is serving life with the possibility of parole and has been incarcerated for over 30 years for nonviolent crimes. In June, Brasier got a notice from Polis saying that Martinez’s clemency petition was excepted and was moving to the next phase. “Which was basically the same note that (former Gov. John) Hickenlooper gave us,” she said, adding that she’s worried that the pandemic will further delay the process.

A drawing, with the words “Missing You,” by Anthony Martinez, an 85-year-old inmate at the Sterling Correctional Facility. (Provided by the ACLU of Colorado)

When Smith is able to speak to her husband, who wishes to be anonymous out of fear of retaliation, she’s appalled by what she hears. She said there have been times when inmates have been on a 72-hour lockdown without a shower, that guards frequently wear their masks around their necks, and that while staff was running the kitchen when inmate workers were in quarantine, inmates were being fed minimal meals.

The Sterling Correctional Facility has been on Phase III modified operations since April 14, according to the DOC’s website, meaning inmates are primarily locked down in their cells unless to shower or use the bathroom. Recreation time is being conducted in smaller groups for a shorter amount of time. 

Under the modified operations, meals and medications are supposed to be delivered to inmates in their cells. But Amaral said that only happened for a few days.

“Some of the staff didn’t see the point, they sort of went rogue, and were letting guys get their food from the day room,” she said.

The DOC did not provide details on what the modifications looked like at the Sterling prison, but its website states that “Phase III may look different at each facility based on the scope of the infection, physical plant, and operational needs.”

Amaral said that at the beginning of the pandemic, most management staff were working remotely. “We were trying to do what they told us to do but there were a lot of people that were giving a lot of kick back.”

Staff at the facility received cloth masks on April 7 and inmates received them on April 15, according to the DOC spokeswoman.

“(They) were really crappy, they fell apart, and they were not fit to size so you would see them hanging off people’s faces,” Amaral said. According to the DOC’s website, staff members are now receiving KN95 masks.

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She said after a few days, the inmates were allowed to go to the food hall for meals, which was cleaned with bleach between each unit. There are 11 units in the facility, each with up to 100 people in each. Amaral said although the hall was roped off to promote social distancing, inmates still had to stand in line to get their food.

Smith’s husband typically works in the kitchen, but hasn’t had to go since the prison went into Phase III operations. “But they are making them still go to the chow hall with other people, and there’s 100 prisoners in a unit,” Smith said, adding that she makes sure to keep his commissary money filled so that he doesn’t have to go to the food hall. 

“But I worry about all the men who aren’t able to do that, who don’t have anyone to support them like that. I worry about them a lot,” she said.

If the kitchen workers refuse to go because they are afraid to get COVID, they are being threatened to be moved to the higher security side of the prison, where they lose their phone calls and any good time they’ve earned, according to Amaral. She said this was a common practice before the pandemic. 

When Smith first started hearing about the conditions inside the prison, she questioned if they were being exaggerated. “I’m a mom, I have kids, so I think of stuff like that,” she said. “But when it’s coming out of several different units and they have no way to communicate and fabricate a story, then that leads me to believe there’s something very serious going on here.”

Amaral said when inmates talk to their families about the conditions inside the prison, they are still not telling the whole story.

“I can tell you that it’s worse than what they’re even able to pass on to their family members.”Jamie Amaral

“They’re sugarcoating it because they’re afraid to say a lot of the stuff on the phone, because they’re afraid that people are listening and they’re going to lose their phone privileges for speaking about how bad it is,” Amaral said. “I can tell you that it’s worse than what they’re even able to pass on to their family members.” 

She’s tried to get other staff members to speak out about the conditions but said many are afraid to lose their jobs. 

Before the pandemic hit, Amaral said she loved her job. “I would wake up early and pour my coffee and be excited to go to prison. I was that person,” said Amaral, adding that she misses the inmates. “They’re all so positive, even through COVID. Everything that they had to get them by, to look forward to, was totally cut off overnight for them.” 

Since leaving the prison, Amaral has contacted several inmates to check in on them, which is against the prison’s protocol. The policy states that a former employee is not allowed to contact an inmate within three years after their employment is terminated. Her communication with inmates has since been cut off. But she said she doesn’t regret reaching out.

“I was worried about them and wanted to make sure they were OK,” Amaral said. “The (DOC) can come after me and say I’m just some disgruntled ex staff member, or whatever they want to do, but it doesn’t change the fact that what I’m speaking is truth. I would put it on anything. And it’s not even scraping the surface of how bad it really is.”

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Editor’s note: This story was updated at 8:53 a.m. to clarify that Anthony Martinez is serving life with the possibility of parole and that his clemency petition was accepted in June, but not granted.